Housing Market turns around

CNBC, Fox News & Chicago Tribune all had great stories recently about optimism in the Housing market.  This is truly great to hear.  It’s not that there hasn’t been good housing stories to report, but that several sources are reporting how things are turning around and not beating negative stories into the ground. 

The Chicago Tribune story reads, “Reports from two major banks suggest housing market is on the mend.” It went on to read, “Wells Fargo issued 54% more mortgages than a year ago and took 84% more applications.”  The Fox News story reads, “US home-buying season finally signaling a recovery.”  and, “many people seem to have concluded that prices won’t drop much further. In some areas, prices have begun to tick up.”  

Our local RMLS Market Action report shows that we are down to 5 months of inventory in the Portland Metroplex.  We haven’t seen inventory this low since June of 2007!  Some areas closer into the core of the city are experiencing inventories much lower.

This has been a long schlogg and it is exciting to see things turning up.

Mt Hood
According to the Wall Street Journal article last week titled “Misery across the U.S.” by Kathleen Madigan, Portland ranks 2nd only to Phoenix for the most miserable city in the U.S. I understand that the common feeling now is, “enough already with the rain”, but miserable? In full disclosure, Ms. Madigan didn’t base her story on interviews with residents in the cities she ranked. In fact, the she didn’t base her index on the perception of living in these cities at all.

The misery index was established by the 12-month change in the jobless rate, the percent of change in gas prices since the end of 2010, and the percent change in home values. The story established that the U.S. misery index would stand at 20%, and up from 8.3% a year ago.

I thought a great response to this story was by Stumped in Stumptown titled “Portland is miserable… on paper.” I agree with the author that, “Portlanders aren’t miserable. Our city truly offers the best of everything.”
I have traveled extensively around the world, yet I have only lived within about 100 miles of where I was born. I believe Portland and the Northwest offer so much, that I can’t imagine living anywhere else. So, maybe Ms. Madigan’s miserable index would make you miserable if you obsessed over it, but we have too much to entertain ourselves here to get caught up in it.

I don’t know many real miserable people here in Portland, do you?

The next 14 days will provide what I feel is truly the “Perfect Storm” for anyone looking to buy a home.

We currently have: 1) Our Lender offering 3% of the purchase price to our Buyers for closing costs, 2) Northwest Natural Gas is offering a years worth of Natural Gas on any of the homes in the Ultimate Open House, 3) The Federal Home Buyer tax credit is still available, 4) Exceptionally low mortgage interest rates and 5) Great home values that have reset to 2002 in many areas. For instance:

1) On any Marnella Homes town homes in Volare, Golf Savings Bank is providing a Lender Credit of 3% of the Sale Price up to $20,000. This program has just been extended for sales agreements dated on or before the 1st of June, 2010 with closing dates on or before the 30th of July, 2010.
2) Northwest Natural Gas is offering a year of Natural Gas, up to $800, on our homes that we have presented in this years Ultimate Open House.
3) The Federal Home Buyer tax credit is available for qualified home buyers on transactions executed by the 30th of April, 2010 and closed by the 30th of June, 2010
4) We are seeing mortgage rates that are as low as our Grandparents took advantage of after World War II. These are rates that cannot be sustained at these low levels and will have to begin to rise.
5) Home values in some areas, like here in Happy Valley, have reset to 2002/2003 prices. If you are looking at homes under $300,000, these values have bottomed out and have shown signs of strengthening in many areas.

So, for anyone thinking about or actively looking to buy a home, the current conditions for home buying are such that we may never see again in our lifetime.

No it isn’t what my sons do and giggle or what happened in that embarrassing situation in the elevator.  Offgassing or outgassing is what we tend to call the “New Home Smell” or “New Car Smell”.  We think we want it, but do we?  This smell is actually gases emitting from the materials in our new homes and cars. Like, carpet, vinyl, paint, etc. and even furniture. 

The Energy Star New Homes program requires that builders within their program build at a minimum of 15% above the code requirements.  However, Marnella Homes is building to 30 – 35% above code requirements with 100% of the homes we build.  Improved indoor air quality is one of the criteria that we must address. This begins by using materials that have low volatile organic compound (VOC) content.  VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long-term adverse health effects.

To meet the requirements of the New Home program’s indoor air quality criteria, we use Green Sealed Certified carpet and low VOC content paint and caulking.  Since these products contain much less VOC they don’t emit as much VOC as similar uncertified products.  This is amazingly noticeable when walking into a home built with standard products without the indoor air quality consciousness compared to a home that is built to the Energy Star indoor air quality standards.

Whether you already have health concerns that require this attention to indoor air quality or not, you owe it to you and your family’s health to educate yourself on the importance of it. So, when looking for a new home, look for the Energy Star label.  Ask questions and investigate what, if any, indoor air quality features the builder is offering.  These features will not only benefit you as an occupant of your new home, but will provide lasting value to you when you resell in the future.

Your comments are welcome.

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I think one of the most under reported stories about the real estate market today is just how close to normal our markets are.  What we keep hearing is how far off we are “from the peak”.  Well, “the peak” was unsustainable in any market so, why are we comparing our current market’s health with such unrealistic statistics.  For our market here in Portland Oregon, inventory levels are currently at 6.5 months (inventory levels are calculated by taking the current number of active listings divided by the number of pending sales in any given month).  In fact, Happy Valley was one of the first and hardest hit markets in the Portland metro and it has reduced it’s inventory in line with the metro average as well.  The Portland metro started out in January of this year at 19.2 months of inventory!  Not a bad adjustment.  In comparison, the time period between 1998 and 2002 experienced monthly inventory levels ranging from 4.1 to 10.1.  Averaging mostly between 5 & 6 months of inventory until the spring of 2003.  We are currently carrying about 3000 more listings than we averaged during that time period however, we had approximately 350,000 fewer people then as well.   

In wrapping up this year, it is exciting to hear such statistics as “”The affordability equation is now at its most favorable point for buyers since 1970.”, “The 64% jump in pending sales Portland at sunriseis the largest same-month increase since February 1996.”, “New home inventory, on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, is at its lowest levels in over 14 years.” and “The 30-year (mortgage rate) has never been this low since Freddie Mac began its weekly survey in 1971.”  All of which came out this past week.

After the correction we just went through, normal is ok.  In fact, welcome.  So, it’s time that we started acknowledging, better yet, appreciating what we have instead of dwelling on such unrealistic comparisons. It is time to enjoy the sun rise on a new day, no matter how “normal”  it might feel and let yesterday, be just that.

The answer is, yes, to both. The architectural style is what most people associate town homes with, yet the lifestyle is truly the most appreciated aspect by those that chose town home living.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a town house as: “a usually single-family house of two or sometimes three stories that is usually connected to a similar house by a common sidewall.” Thus, an architectural style. However, what isn’t clarified is the lifestyle also associated with Town homes/houses. Town homes are ideal for those who lead active lives. Town home owners typically enjoy traveling, outdoor activities and social activities. They are often business professionals with careers, parents with children and those looking to wind down. One of the many benefits of town home living is that a homeowner can enjoy all their activities without having to worry about home maintenance like yard work, exterior painting, gutter cleaning and roof maintenance. These homes and communities are designed for a quality of life that puts you and your family first and leaves home maintenance and yard work up to someone else.

In a current societal shift that has brought back the theme of “less is more”, the town home lifestyle fits right in. Owning a home with unused rooms has become less important. The large abundance of square feet that was once deemed necessary is being replaced by smaller, more charming and functional spaces.

The Milano at Volare

With ever increasing energy costs, the smaller more energy efficient homes not only create a more comfortable living environment, but create less impact on the household budget and environment. As an example, the town homes at Volare in Happy Valley, being built by Marnella Homes, offer monthly energy savings of approximately $40 more than a code-built or detached home of similar size. This monthly savings equates to extra money that a homeowner can keep in their pocket.

Another positive aspect of town home living is a feeling of safety and security. Those living in town home communities tend to develop a “look out for your neighbor” atmosphere which is very comforting. You can leave on vacation and return to find your home just as you left it; not only secure and safe, but grass mowed, weeds pulled and well maintained.

If you walk through a town home community like Volare and meet the homeowners, you will find that the option to buy a single family detached home was available, yet they purchased a town home. Whether current Volare residents owned a larger home and decided to make the switch to town home living or were first-time homebuyers who liked the town home lifestyle, the reasons to live in a town home tend to be very similar. Ease of living to accommodate an active lifestyle.

So, before you think of a town home as just another style of housing, explore all they have to offer and you may find that a town home is in your future, too.

It is not surprising that when you talk with someone about our differences in how we insulate their eyes glaze over.  However, it is very important.  In a market that is no longer a “buy & flip”, but a “hold for the long term” as in years past.  Features like insulation, heating systems, quality levels of materials, etc are important for the lasting value of a home.  Considering that buying a home is only half of the transaction, the other half is when it is sold in 5 – 10 years.  What features will provide that lasting value that older homes and many of the other new homes on the market will not have.  I have commented on our testing and heating systems in the past, now I am going to talk about insulation and why blown-in bib (BIB) insulation should be an important feature to a home owner.

 The difference between BIB insulation and batt insulation is that batt insulation is rolled up insulation that is unrolled an applied between wall studs, ceilings trusses and floor joists.  Which means that it rolls over any electrical conduit, plumbing, heating ducts, etc. and cannot fill in the entire void between the wall studs or joists.  This leaves pockets or voids where the insulation couldn’t insulate which will allow for heat to escape.  However, BIB insulation is just that, insulation blown into a wall or ceiling cavity leaving no air pockets or voids.  The result is densely packed insulation producing higher R values, cuts down air infiltration and slowing the transfer of temperature in a wall or ceiling cavity through the flow of air.  This reduces both sound transmission as well as energy loss.

BIBS installation 

At Marnella Homes, Our current wall BIB system, for our Volare town homes in Happy Valley, is tested and documented at a R24 rating.  Code only requires a R21 rating for walls and our ceilings have a R49 rating with code only requiring R38.  This is a significant increase in insulating performance.  The R value insulation ratings are used to measure insulations ability to resist heat flow. The higher the R value, the more effective it is.  For more information on what the “R” value for insulation is, see the following link: http://rvalue.net

This results in a direct benefit to the home owner in reduced energy costs.  Combined with the other performance enhancements, like a high efficiency furnace and hot water heater significantly reduce monthly energy expenses.  Money each and every month that you keep in your pocket.  It today’s world every dollar saved is important.  At Volare, our town home owners are saving on average $40 a month compared to a home built to code.  These home owners are not only enjoying a more comfortable living environment, but they have extra cash to either save or treat themselves to something well deserved.

For our potential first time home buyers out there, the $8000 Federal Housing Tax Credit that you are eligible for is coming to a close.  By the 1st of December 2009, only 3 months way, this tax credit will be no more.  However, due to the time necessary to close a home taking about 30 – 45 days, what this really means is that you will need to have your sales agreement accepted and in escrow by the 15th of October just to be safe.  Since you have only about a month and a half of shopping time left, don’t delay.  Take advantage of all that is available in the market place right now; historically low interest rates, home values that have reset in many markets to 2003/2004 prices and an $8000 government give-a-way.

Don’t be one of those who feels that the housing market has a long way to fall.  There is too much positive news coming out all over the country to counter that theory.  Remember, it only takes interest rates to move up a half of a percent to wipe out the benefit of a 10% drop in sales price.  With many markets identifying their bottoms already, waiting for deeper price cuts is a mistake that you will surely regret when the tax credit is gone and rates go up.  Which, they will.

Don’t miss out on what will be looked back upon as an opportunity of a lifetime for those willing to take advantage of it.

For frequently asked questions and more information on the Federal Housing Tax Credit refer to: http://www.federalhousingtaxcredit.com/2009/index.html

and

http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=206291,00.html

I wrote back in January about the behind the scenes inspections and testing that the green high performance homes get that many don’t know about or if they do, don’t appreciate the intensity of them.  Since we continue to hear about Buyers wanting the “Best Deal” or the “Best Value”, it occurred to me that the Value of these homes is also not being realized.

For instance, 100% of the homes we build here at Marnella Homes are built to the Earth Advantage/Energy Star “Gold” level.  Our homes are extremely well sealed and with blow-in insulation achieve a very low leakage rating.  Also, with our 95%+ HVAC systems, fully sealed ducting and all inside the home in conditioned space.  Our home owners save on average $40 – $50 a month in our 1400 – 1600 sqft homes over a similiar sized code built home.  

Home owners have been sold over the years all the features that builders put in and are told how great they are and sometimes even how many years the home owner will receive a payback from these features.  What so many times doesn’t get either explained or truly appreciated by the home owner or buyer is the value of these features.  We took on the venture of Green performance building with the “What’s in it for me” approach.  Thinking just selling features to someone who doesn’t know much about the industry will tend to make their eyes glaze over.  So, we have tried to show our home owners and buyers “what is in it for them”. 

In the case of a monthly savings, this is a direct savings over what they would be paying for utilities at any other new code built home.  Plus, even with many builders getting on the green built performance band wagon most are doing just the minimum to get their homes certified so, we are outperforming most builders in our area.  This is money that can be for that massage every month, the manicure, dinner, a movie with the family, a ski lift ticket in the winter, etc.  So, many things that these homes make easier to afford.  Because, isn’t the old saying, “a penny saved is a penny earned” more relevant today than ever before in our life time?

Now that I have addressed the actual savings, let’s look at the added value.  Using the $40 – $50 a month in savings, at today’s interest rates that is about $8,000 to $10,000 in additional value to the home. Of course, our lenders aren’t going to let you borrow more because we can show the energy savings, but wouldn’t it be great to know that you have built-in additional financial strength due to the lower monthly cost of home ownership?  I do believe that some lenders will eventually see this value and want to work with builders like us once this resonates with them. However, I am not holding my breath for this to happen anytime soon.

Lastly, now that real estate has moved back to a more traditional style of ownership, I feel that the long term value that these homes offer is also important.  Energy costs are going to continually rise so, in 5, 7, 10 years or so when we sell our homes doesn’t it seem that it will be a added value to your buyer that your home saves a considerable amount in monthly utility costs over the resale homes that will be on the market at the same time?  I think it should now and most assuredly then.

So, buying a home isn’t just the countertops, the carpet and appliances.  Sure those are the features that you can see, feel and touch, but don’t over look some of the most important features that truly create the “value” in your home.  You can always change your carpet, appliances and countertops, but it tends to be a little harder to retrofit a high performance HVAC system inside your home in the conditioned space if you are replacing a traditional system it’s not very easy to go back and effectively caulk and seal up a home that is already completed.

Please share your comments.  I would like to hear from you.

Marnella Homes has had many firsts for a home building company here in the northwest.  As we strive to improve our homes and the buying experience, we continue to look outside the box and create new programs to assist and benefit our home buyers and owners.  Some of the things that we have done to differentiate ourselves are:

 Our “Home Sellers Assistance Program”.  This program offers our home buyers the opportunity to list their current homes at a 3% total brokerage fee.  We bring in an interior designer to assist in getting their home ready to sell. We coordinate any necessary repairs and we credit back to our buyer the cost of these repairs towards their home purchase up to $5000. 

  • We are the first production builder to build 100% of our homes over the Earth Advantage/Energy Star Gold level.  Which combined with our marketing efforts earned us the Energy Star award for large builder in Oregon.
  • We also offer a buyer’s guide to our home buyers to use when shopping for a home. It helps to educate and inform them of what features they should look for that will provide them lasting value and comfort in their next home.
  • Now, we offer the “Rest Assured Plan”. 

 Marnella Homes’ Rest Assured Plan provides security and reassurance in these uncertain times. At no cost to our buyers, our plan guarantees that in the event of a job loss within 24 months after closing, their mortgage will be paid for up to 6 months. We want to make sure that the fear of something that may not ever happen doesn’t keep someone from purchasing their next home.  We understand that there are economic challenges right now however, we hope that these concerns won’t prevent families from making a sound investment in their future. Now is a great time to buy a home. Prices and interest rates are at record lows and the U.S. government has created incentive programs and tax advantages for home buyers.  We have faith in the American Dream and we’re here to help families achieve it without losing sleep.

Our list won’t end here as complacency will never be acceptable.  With our home buyer’s needs ever changing in a market that is ever changing, it will be necessary to continually strive to improve our programs and our buying experience.