Zillow & U.S. Census Bureau

Zillow & U.S. Census Bureau

There’s a house shortage, if you haven’t heard. Caravans of mournful buyers are circling Southern Maine waiting for a chance to dash into a newly listed house and make a rash offer above asking price. It’s like musical chairs but much less fun. Why aren’t there more houses for sale? Where did all the houses go?


Zillow & U.S. Census Bureau

They’re right where we left them, says this report from the Federal Reserve. But they’re only available to renters. They’ve entered the “rental inventory.”

When the housing bubble burst (thanx, banx) oodles of foreclosed homes flooded the market. Mannnnny of these bargains were bought by the only folks who could round up credit or cash: Investors. Now they’re in use, but not in circulation.

Check out the trend lines: The housing market dwindles; the rental market swells.


This Pecha Kucha presentation was so much fun. I learned one million things, and gained an even greater affection for this pragmatic place called Portland, Maine. Six minute video. 13,000 years of history. You can’t get much more value than that.

Click image for video:
20 hvh


Maine real estate monthly report.

LookinMaine real estate monthly report.

Lookin’ alive, Maine! The past quarter has seen a perkier market in all but one county. (‘Sup, Sagadahoc? I thought Bath Iron Works was on a hiring binge.)

The first three columns of that table address the number of houses sold this quarter versus the same quarter a year ago–it’s a measure of how easy (or hard) it is to get out from under a house you don’t want.

But the second three columns remind you that opportunity is not equal. These columns address any change in the average sale price, this quarter over the same quarter a year back. A big change in that average price can mean a couple things:

1: A big, expensive house sold, and its price is pushing the average around. Check the “volume” columns — a small volume of sales leaves the average price vulnerable to weirdo sales.

2: Sellers are SICK OF THIS AND GETTING OUT OF HERE EVEN IF WE TAKE A BATH ON THE PRICE! This  might explain Lincoln County, where the number of sales is up, but the price is way down.

When you look at the populous counties (York, Cumberland, Kennebec) you find smaller swings from quarter to quarter: A high “n” (number of data points) produces a more reliable signal of where people are going.



When tax money flows between people and government, it often leaves a “public record,” a trail. You can use this public record to discover who owns a building. Realtors follow these trails for every house we handle, looking for back taxes, foreclosure motions, sibling squabbles, snarly divorces, and other afflictions.

To find your own trail, start at the Assessor’s Office in your town. Here’s Portland’s.

Input the street and/or street number you’re curious about. Screenshot (61) You’ll get a list of properties and tax accounts on that street; if you have the street number you’ll get just that property.Screenshot (62)

Click the account number at the left of the property you’re interested in, which will take you to that property’s “assessor’s card.” Cumby’s card, for instance, looks like this, and will contain allllll manner of info, including when it last changed hands, and for how much money. And a pretty picture, so you can be sure you’re looking at the right thing.

Screenshot (63)

Now write down the “Book and Page” Screenshot (64)numbers from the card. We’re going to find the deed for this property at the Registry of Deeds. Here’s Cumberland County’s.

Search settings:

Office: Recorded Land

Search Type: Volume

Volume (Book): 7282

Page Number: 348Screenshot (65)

GO! Up comes the result list, from which you select that tiny magnifying glass image labeled, “View img.”

And voila. There’s the deed, the public record of the last time that property changed hands.

Screenshot (66)

It gets a lot funner than that, but also a lot more wordy. But just for fun, click one of those names that appears to the right of the deed…


Wikimedia [PD]

Wikimedia [PD]

It’s not uncommon for house-shoppers to steer clear of a neighborhood with a lot of renters. The perception is that renters “don’t care” about maintaining a safe and friendly neighborhood. Do they not care? Or do they not feel they have the right to care?

This little study demonstrates that, while renters are just as inconvenienced as owners are by  potholes, dead streetlights, and other degenerative diseases of a city, they are far less likely to complain about them.

Homeowners in Boston are three times more likely to file a complaint than renters, although renters outnumber owners two-to-one. And because 80% of the complaints address problems within two blocks of the citizen’s residence, the issues are likely to be the sort of things that impact renters and owners equally.

There is something magical about writing a property-tax check, I think. It feels like a direct purchase of city services, and entitles the homeowner to question the value of those services.

While renters most assuredly pay property taxes, they do so indirectly, handing the money to their landlords. Does that disconnect renters from their local government? That’s hard to say. But this study says that renters either don’t object to driving around potholes, or don’t believe anybody cares.


fixer upperIt’s too cold to work on the outside of your house. In fact, it’s too cold to work on the inside of your house. But it’s just right to leave your house, and wander around the Portland Civic Center* thinking of all the things you could do to improve your house, given a hospitable temperature, and all the time and money in the world. Thinking about improving your house is better than nothing, and since your brain burns a ton of calories, it’s a double-winner: You’ll be improving both your house and your health.

Saturday 10-6

Sunday 10-4


*Cross Arena. I may never get used to that. While “Civic Center” is all democratic and civical-sounding, Cross Arena just sounds short-tempered.


B&D, FHA style. wikimedia commons pd

B&D, FHA style. wikimedia commons pd

Numbers are the least sexy part of real estate. But let me see what I can do here to pump up the excitement: $98 a month, that’s what Obama’s new mortgage change will mean to the average Portland home-buyer who’s hot for an FHA loan.

FHA loans do help people of limited means slip into comfortable homes. But these loans tend to be turgid with fees. Among the most rapacious of these is the “mortgage insurance premium.” Right now, that fee engorges the purchase cost of your house by 1.35%.

This may not sound like a huge hunk, but whip out your calculator. Actually, let’s ask my smokin’ hot pal Laura D’Andrea (laura@lendersnetwork.biz) to whip out her calculator: She’s a Portland mortgage originator, and would be the first to assure you that size does matter. Taking an average Portland home, here’s the impact of the sleeker, stripped-down mortgage insurance premium (MIP). For a $245,000 house:

With the minimum 3.5% down payment, under the current MIP rate, you’ll pay about $266 each month just for the MIP. But for that same loan approved after January 26, the MIP payment will be $98 less. Over the life of a 30-year loan, that’s $35,280 in your pocket.

That’s $35,280 you could spend buying the house you’re passionate about vs. the house your mother would choose for you.

Now, two things about the MIP still rub me the wrong way. With “conventional” loans, you can slip the sweaty grip of MIP once you’ve paid for 20% of the home. After all, the whole point of mortgage insurance is to make sure the lender can recover its money if you pull a one night stand–and if the home is worth 20% more than the loan balance, the lender should be safe.LD

But FHA plays rough. It’s going to squeeze you tight for the entire life of the loan. So go ahead and take a tumble with this enticing new MIP. But keep that safe word on the tip of your tongue: Refinance!



Image: CBT Architects

The technical name for the stuff is EIFS–Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems. The reality of EIFS: Styrofoam stucco. The problem: This exterior finish wants in.

I’m not presuming that the Miami developer behind the huge-ish housing complex proposed for Portland’s Bayside is committed to cladding that conglomeration with EIFS. I’m just saying that this rendering looks quite a lot like the finish you’ll find gracing the exterior of your local Target store.

Above is one of the four buildings now proposed for the strip along Somerset Street behind Trader Joe’s and the former DHS building. This thing will face a dignified, old, brick-clad building across Somerset. 

Screenshot (42)

Right: Monotonous facade offering “unvaried pedestrian experience.” Speaking as a pedestrian and a hater of change, I like it just fine. Left: TBD. Image: Google Maps

I’m delighted to read in The Press Herald that Portland Planning is leery of both EIFS and vinyl siding for this colossal project. That’s major.

I am, however, alarmed that some feel the proposed facades are “monotonous,” and insufficiently varied in terms of materials.


Image: CBT Architects

IMHO, they are not nearly monotonous enough, and the variation embodied in those scuba-mask projections and the random green squares combines the worst of the 1960’s and today’s tarpaper-townhouse aesthetics. Taken as a whole, the design reminds me of the Holiday Inn on Spring Street, which reminds me of a neglected beach in Florida.

While I’m kvetching, may I note that those roofs look suspiciously similar to parking lots, and not much like green roofs or solar arrays?

Now, to stop kvetching: I get that Portland housing costs are way too high for normal people. And that bricks are expensive. And that StyroStucco is cheap. And that vinyl is final. I get that. I vowed to tear the vinyl off my 1918 bungalow the day I bought it. Instead, I put on an addition with more vinyl. Some day, I’ll get around to adding plastic shutters, which will vary the materials and the pedestrian experience, and make the addition look less like an angular, white tumor.

Human shelter is an exercise in compromise. Its first job is to keep humans warm and dry. Its second is to ruin the planet as little as possible. The rest is up for debate.



box tops architecture

Photo: The Neighborhood Developers

So this pile of boxes won a big prize. Well, this and a few other components in the redevelopment of the old Box District in Chelsea, Mass. Together they won the Jack Kemp Award for Excellence in Affordable Housing. Yay. Nothing wrong with that.

But how do we feel about the way this looks?

Architecture is doing this now–boxes. All over Munjoy Hill, and now in the West End.

Of course, nothing in the world makes more sense than a flat roof–if it’s covered with plants and/or solar panels. On the other hand, New England’s history is one long tale of pitched roofs. On occasion, an Italianate bay window elbowed its between the typically flat and somber facades. Clapboard, shingle, and brick were the only sidings a respectable Pilgrim would consider.

Change happens, however. This award-winning development is platinum LEED certified, efficient, and even located on a mass-transit line, which is fantastic. The larger project revitalized what was formerly the neglected grave of a cardboard box factory. Yay.


Photo: USM

I’m just not sure I understand what this design is talking about. What is it saying to the buildings around it, to the ground beneath it, to the climate overhead? Housing design, like clothing and hair styles, is subject to fads. Some styles age better than others. How will the Box Era be judged in the coming decades?

In defense of the Box, I felt certain when the USM library got its

Photo: 118 on Munjoy Hill

Photo: 118 on Munjoy Hill

makeover that God would smite it from the face of the earth, and that has not happened. Has it aged well? I don’t know. Maybe it’s acquired the sort of patina a cardboard box gets after a winter outdoors.

But this Munjoy Hill design, in a neighborhood of restrained and Pilgrimmy buildings: In 20 years, will this blend in? Or will anyone care?