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.


National Assn Realtors

National Assn Realtors

In Maine, you need no more formal education than a high-school diploma to qualify for a real estate license. In California, you don’t even need that. I think that’s a little weird. Now, every state does require at least some special classroom training, and then a state exam. But, having sat through a fair amount of that special training myself, I’m pretty sure most fifth-graders, as well as certain minerals, could pass. It freaks me out a little. I mean, consider this ad copy for a California real estate school:

How difficult are your courses?

Our courses are not difficult to pass. The Final Exam for our courses consists of 100 multiple choice questions, and it is an Open Book Online Exam.

How difficult is the State Exam?

The State Exam is not easy, generally the state-wide pass rate hovers around 50%.

Noooo, I’m not talking about the ad hoc capitalization, or the conjoined sentences. I’m just thinking that if you’re impressed by a sales pitch that trumpets a 50% failure rate, you probably should have applied yourself a little more vigorously in fifth grade.

I’m just thinking that if the National Association of Realtors thought trumpeting its pretty, new graph of education levels was going to impress anyone, well…



Honey, what's our credit score? [PD]Wikimedia

Honey, what’s our credit score? [PD]Wikimedia

People who live in green houses pay their bills. So finds a study of mortgage meltdowns: People who buy energy-efficient homes are 32% less likely to default than the average buyer.

Why? So many possible reasons. People who care about efficiency are by definition long-term thinkers. They think about the future. They make plans.

But also, people with efficient homes have lower carrying costs. Because banks don’t yet consider carrying costs in such detail, banks don’t give buyers credit for the money a low heating bill puts in the owner’s pocket. So efficient-house buyers are “richer” than banks can conceive.

And efficient homes are more likely to be bought by people with flexible mindsets, who aren’t puzzled by freakishly small furnaces, multiple fuel sources, heat pumps, heat sinks, geothermal gizmology, thick walls, and other peculiarities of green building. Flexible thinkers are also more likely to find a creative way out of a financial crunch, according to me.

This jives, oddly enough, with a study I saw yesterday linking pro-environmental behavior with the personality facets, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness.


[pd] wikimedia

[pd] wikimedia

The annual home improvement survey is out, and once again the steel door tops the list of home improvements that will lose you the least money when you sell.

Clients often ask me if they should remodel the bathroom or replace the counter tops when they prepare their house to sell. They ask other agents that, too. Which is why the National Association of Realtors publishes an annual study of which home improvements buyers will pay extra for.

Yeah, none. Realtors across the country chime in, and they/we are pretty clear on this: None.

Even the steel entry door is a disappointment, with brokers estimating that buyers will pay $1,122 for your new $1162 door. Fiberglass door? Forget it. The “R” on that “I” is only 71%.

A kitchen remodel, which runs $20,000 to $50,000, nets only about 75% of your cost–at the high end! The cheaper your remodel, the smaller fraction you’ll recoup.

Most of the least-losing improvements are external: Fresh siding, garage doors, and the dearly loved steel entry door are up there. In New England, the door and even a new deck break into positive payback territory! Add two! Surround your house with decks, and make millions!

Additions–family rooms, sun rooms, and garages–are the biggest money dumps. Home office remodels are for chumps. New roofs are a ghastly miscalculation.

Here’s the thing: First impressions matter tremendously–as they should when you’re purchasing a giant consumer product with 1,000 hidden pieces that might or might not make your next 20 years a long, slow dance of regret. …Right?

So yes, no new windows. But wash the heck out of whatever windows you have. No new kitchen, but paint elderly cabinets white. If you add a sunroom ($76,000) plan on half your ROI coming back as pure joy, because it’s not going to come back as money.

If you must, if you really must, you can replace the entry door.

Check out the full list of survey items here.




Kublai Khan. Wikimedia pd

Kublai Khan. Wikimedia pd

I’ve been watching the Marco Polo series on Netflix not for the melodrama and frontal nudity, but for the real estate considerations. Primarily, how did Kublai Khan not freeze his funny little hairdo off? How warm can you really make a ger?

Pretty warm, apparently. Thanks to sheep.

The Mongolian ger, aka yurt, is a lightly-woven basket, covered with layers of felted wool. The ger is modular from the get-go, as befits a culture of sheep-followers. Accordingly, the insulation also is easily adjusted. The basic unit of insulation is a flexible version of foam insulation board, known as felted wool. The raw material is mined from a sheep, then whacked into dense sheets about an inch thick. This oily product is water and wind-repellent, and has an R-value of a bit under 1. In the winter, you pile on as many as you want. Three inches of felt mat provide an R value similar to your double-pane window (2). The old balloon-construction houses of Maine only managed R-4 or -5.

But insulation is only part of the story. Materials also lose heat through radiation. Glass is a fantastic radiator, shedding your household heat out into the winter air. Felt, according to research by a bunch of sheep, yak, camels, llamas, and goats, is not.

And air infiltration is important as well: That old Maine house has sprung so many leaks since it was built that you may as well just leave a door open all winter. The circular, even spherical, shape of the ger sheds cold wind instead of fighting it; and apparently the oily felt itself is remarkably windproof. (Modern gers have a canvas cover that helps, too.)

So Khan & Co. weren’t exactly roughing it on the Mongolian grasslands. Plus, if Netflix’s account is to be believed, no Mongolian ever spent a night alone.


[PD] wikimedia

[PD] wikimedia

What is Zillow, exactly, and… why?

Well, back in the day, all real estate agents worked for sellers. In Maine, anyway, the seller’s agent collected a commission from the seller, then either found a buyer herself, or paid part of the commission to any “sub-agent” who could rope in a buyer. Maine, anyway, now does a good job of giving buyers a chance to retain their own advocate.

But a hangover furrows the brow of the industry still.

For one thing, the seller’s agent still usually collects the entire commission, out of long habit. The buyer’s agent is still typically paid by the seller’s agent, in Maine. Just out of habit. It works; it’s just peculiar.

And then there’s a headache known as Zillow. (And Trulia, etc.) Now that buyers are choosing agents of their own, those buyers have become a valuable commodity. Everybody and his uncle is trying to catch them, and then sell them to real estate agents.

And that’s what Zillow does. Now that buyers are free to take their own path to a house for sale, Zillow has done a particularly good job of making the path wide and easy to navigate on a smart phone. Zillow sells advertising space to real estate agents who want their smiling face to pop up beside your search results.

So that’s a Zillow: It collects house-hunters and sells them to agents.

Real estate agents resent the Zillows of the world for various reasons. Old-school agents see Zillow as a poacher, stealing buyers who used to be forced to deal directly with the seller’s agent.

Busy agents resent Zillow for telling their buyer clients that 234 School Street is available, when it is long gone. Zillow’s data is famously dirty, which wastes everybody’s time.

Me? I think the customer is always right: Home hunters want decent searching tools. Zillow solved a problem, and if it’s not yet perfect, it’s pretty good.

And now, to recapture those free-range buyers, agents are getting creative.

Some are now getting their own apps. (Scan the QRC below to test-drive my very own, built by Keller Williams. I’d love to hear reviews. It’s easy to delete if you don’t like it.)

Agents are also exploring the value of their proprietary data banks which, after all, are built, maintained, and updated at agents’ expense. Broker organizations are demanding that Zillow direct some of those free-range buyers back toward the listing agent in exchange for data.

But to my mind, the whole kerfuffle overlooks the goal of the seller: to present her house to as many people as possible. If Zillow can bring my client’s house to your attention, I don’t care what agent brings you to the door.

Next time: Redfin

Hannah Holmes Keller Williams smart-phone realty search thingamajig

Hannah Holmes Keller Williams smart-phone realty search thingamajig


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?