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t takes flexibility, communication and realistic expectations to work successfully with an architect. Here’s a round-up (by MSN Real Estate) of some tips from architects and homeowners.

Pay attention to personality. Most people hire an architect only once in their lives. Searching for one is akin to finding a financial planner, architects say. Look for an architect who has designed projects that are similar in style and scope to yours. “There’s no substitute for experience,” says Todd Strickland, a partner with Historical Concepts, an Atlanta architectural firm. Because designing a home is such a personal project, it’s important that you feel able to communicate with your architect.

Liza Nugent, 41, and her husband needed an architect to combine their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a neighboring unit; they got referrals from friends. The first architect they called made a snippy remark about how “unsophisticated” co-op boards in buildings on side streets such as theirs make renovations difficult. “I thought, with that kind of attitude, we definitely wouldn’t get along,” Nugent says. After calling two more architects and interviewing three others, the Nugents picked a longtime acquaintance who had creative design solutions for their project.

Enlist an architect early. Most architects will do their best to design a structure to work with whatever plot of land you have to build on. But they also can help scout prospective land purchases. With a general vision of your house and a budget in mind, the architect can evaluate the pros and cons of a location that a client might overlook, such as whether a site is big enough to accommodate the dwelling or whether a neighbor’s right to a view will preclude building the 12-foot ceilings you want.

Is the site free of utility constraints? What about topographical features that could increase the cost of building? Paying for four or five hours of evaluation is likely to save money in the long run.

Bring visuals. Pictures help an architect understand your vision, whether it’s a rough sketch you’ve made, magazine photos of homes you like, or a coffee-table book featuring interiors by your favorite designer. Snapshots of specific lighting fixtures or cabinet styles are helpful, but so are pictures that convey intangibles: the sense of place created by sunlight streaming through a skylight, or a library room with a “warm” feeling.

Dallas architect Marc McCollom, who designs modern houses, says clients also should bring pictures of things they don’t like. Architects will regard the client’s visual portfolio as a cue for whether they’ll make a good team. “If they show me pictures with crown molding and decorative wallpaper, I shouldn’t take that job,” McCollom says. “I’m not going to be happy, and we shouldn’t work together.”

Find a listener. A relationship with a designer is like a marriage: Go with someone who listens, cut your losses with someone who doesn’t — or risk getting a house you don’t want to live in. When Jim Jenkins began a $1.5 million renovation of his Alamo, Calif., home, he hired a local who had designed other houses in the neighborhood. But 18 months into the process, the architect still hadn’t produced a design that the Jenkinses liked or that could get past the local homeowners association.

“He wouldn’t design what we were looking for,” Jenkins says. “My wife’s looking for something Caribbean and he kept thinking California Ranch.”

Jenkins pulled the plug on that designer and hired a Berkeley architect, Robert Nebolon. “He read the codes, had some creative ideas and within six months I got what I was looking for,” Jenkins says.

Clients need to listen, too. Telephones, faxes and e-mail aren’t the best ways to communicate about home design. Avoiding in-person meetings will delay construction. A good architect won’t act on any part of a project without clear approval.

Talk money upfront. A flat fee may be appropriate for projects whose scope is very defined. But construction projects often include unforeseen challenges, and for that reason most architects prefer to charge by the hour or by a percentage of building costs. Some architects charge by the hour in the concept stage and then charge fees ranging from 8% to 18% of construction costs after hiring. For projects costing $1.5 million plus, expect fees to range from 12% to 18%, says James P. Cramer, chairman of Greenway Group, a design-industry consulting firm.

Some architects ask clients for a wish list of features, fixtures and qualities along with an estimated budget. “Sometimes people’s expectations aren’t realistic, given what their budgets are,” says Manhattan architect Darby Curtis.

Consider full service. Architects will be as involved as you want them to be. They can simply do design conception and deliver drawings. Or they can visit sites, coordinate contractors and observe construction. Many architects advise clients to retain a designer through construction. “In the long run you’ll save yourself from headaches and extra construction,” Curtis says.

Have a strong marriage. Architects offer this last bit of advice in all seriousness. Money tends to cause stress in a relationship, and building a home involves a lot of money. Building a house together, McCollom says, “is not going to save your marriage.” Full Story

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Looking for a commanding view of the collapsing housing market? According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, some 138 mountaintop acres next to the landmark Hollywood sign in Los Angeles are going on sale Wednesday for $22 million.

Abutting the largest urban park in the country –- and just west of the giant sign’s H, the property atop Cahuenga Peak has been privately owned for years. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes bought it before World War II in hopes of building a mountain hideaway for his then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. She demurred. It passed undeveloped into Mr. Hughes’s estate and was sold in 2002 to Chicago-based Fox River Co. for $1.68 million.

Two years ago, city officials, residents and conservationists launched a fundraising drive to buy the property atop the 1,820-foot-high peak, which affords sweeping views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel mountains. Their stated goal was to make the peak part of Griffith Park, the municipal land that practically envelopes it. Safe to say, they didn’t raise anywhere near the current $22 million asking price.

Griffith Park has suffered two damaging wildfires in the past year. Any potential developer is certain to face obstacles getting building permits.

Still, rare hill properties in Los Angeles can attract determined buyers, while the overall housing market remains depressed. In Los Angeles County, notices of default outnumbered home sales in the fourth quarter of 2007, and the median price of homes continues to fall, according to DataQuick Information Systems, a La Jolla, Calif., real-estate research firm. From the lofty heights of Cahuenga Peak, the view isn’t necessarily rosy. Full Story

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Valentine’s Day is a time for roses, chocolate and sparkly dinners. But according to RISMedia, if you want to ensure your relationship with your partner endures through less-romantic times, be sure to talk about finances. Being on the same page about all of your financial data is a long-lasting way to show each other your commitment.

To help you broach the subject of finances and make sure they are in alignment, they say that we should consider these tips from Marvin Feldman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education (LIFE):

  1. Have ‘the talk.’ If you haven’t done so yet, tell each other where your key financial information (checking, savings and investment accounts, mortgages, and insurance policies), as well as valuables (birth and marriage certificates, jewelry, safe deposit key) are located. It’s important to understand each other’s financial dreams and plans, as well as final wishes, so that you know exactly what to do in an unforeseen situation.
  2. Boost your life insurance. This is of paramount importance if you have dependents. According to the Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association, today’s average married couple has less than half the amount of life insurance coverage experts recommend. For husbands, it’s barely enough to replace their income for 4.2 years, and for wives 4.9 years.
  3. Evaluate disability insurance needs. According to LIFE research, 70% of working adults say they could only afford to take off one month or less of unpaid vacation before everyday expenses would force them to return to work. Yet, nearly one out of every three workers over the age of 30 will suffer a disability lasting at least three months at some point in their career. To ensure that financial strain doesn’t fall on your household and figure out how much disability insurance you need, visit http://www.lifehappens.org/disabilitycalculator.
  4. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you are married, now is as good a time as any other to put in place a will that names executors, guardians and trustees. This is especially relevant if you have small children, to ensure their well-being in the rare event that something happens to both you and your spouse. When choosing a guardian for your kids, don’t hesitate to look outside the family; it is more important to find someone with values similar to yours rather than entrusting an aunt or an uncle you’re not comfortable with.
  5. Meld your financial responsibilities. While your chemistry may be great in the beginning of a relationship, make sure it lasts by determining upfront your spending and saving habits, whether you want a joint checking account, and whose responsibility it is to handle the bills.
  6. Rest in peace. This is always a tough topic, but discussing your final wishes and arrangements will ensure neither of you will be burdened with those decisions later on. Write down and tell your spouse, as well as other family members, where you want to be buried, funeral arrangements and even whether or not you wish to be an organ donor. Full Story

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With reports that foreclosures are up 51% from 2006 and that home ownership took a record plunge in 2007, RISMedia says it’s clear that 2008 will be a year of economic uncertainty, and at worst, a year of continuing downturn. As consumers continue to feel the squeeze, the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) reminds homeowners and those eager to sell to look to ASHI Certified Inspectors when considering options for buying, selling or maintaining their home in a down market.

“ASHI has taken steps to arm its members with the resources and support to provide a diverse range of services for homeowners,” said Brion Grant, 2008 ASHI president. “We know that one-size doesn’t fit all in this market. From energy audits to maintenance inspections, phased-inspections and more, we’re arming members with tools to diversify their services so that they can meet the needs of the public.”

New Services for Homeowners

Energy audits are among the core services that ASHI is encouraging its members to fine-tune so consumers have the benefit of potential cost savings. In December, members of ASHI’s Blue Ridge Chapter (Virginia) participated in group training with a nationally certified energy auditing company to secure certification to perform energy audits in their region. “With the cost of fuel skyrocketing, energy audits can uncover inefficiencies and point to savings,” added Grant. “ASHI is working in conjunction with a certifying organization to provide opportunities for training and certification so that its members can offer this ancillary service nationally.”

Another service homeowners may not think about is maintenance inspections.

“Maintenance should be at the top of every seller’s list this year, said Grant. “In this market, home buyers have more properties to choose from, and will look closely at how well a home has been kept up.”

Homeowners who are serious about selling their home in 2008 should consider hiring an inspector to conduct a maintenance inspection, which includes checking everything from the foundation, roof and gutters, to a home’s exterior and interior walls, electrical wiring and plumbing. ASHI also offers a maintenance checklist, a list of items in the home that should be maintained annually or by season. Those interested in obtaining a copy of ASHI’s home maintenance checklist should contact a local ASHI Certified Inspector via ASHI’s Website http://www.ASHI.org.

Services for Buying or Building a Home

With a record 2.18 million homes sitting vacant and sellers chomping at the bit to unload their home, buyers are at risk too. Before purchasing a home, ASHI encourages buyers to hire an inspector to conduct a pre-sale inspection to determine its quality, efficiency and safety. “There are a lot of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to sell their homes,” said Grant. “In a market like this, people are quick to jump in because of the rock-bottom price rather than the quality and safety of the home.” And, with many bank-owned properties being sold “as is,” meaning the seller will not be performing any repairs, pre-sale inspections can provide vital information about costly defects.

Phased inspections are also a good way to protect the interests of people who are building a home from scratch. By engaging a home inspector early on, even in the site selection, homeowners can benefit from having an inspector assess the quality of construction at every step. From pouring the foundation, to closing the walls, home inspectors can provide an unbiased assessment of a home that will save homeowners time and money.

“I wish forecasting the future was as easy as picking up a Magic 8-Ball,” said Grant. “‘Outlook good’ would be a welcomed relief from what we’ve seen over the last year. But Americans are resilient, and ASHI is committed to helping homeowners weather this storm.” Full Story

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No one knows what the future holds for you, your family, your job or your finances. But Bankrate.com can help you understand what you’re going to encounter when you embark on the sometimes-difficult journey toward the American Dream of owning a home.

When you get that urge to buy a house, the first thing to do is step back and ask whether it makes more sense to keep renting for a while. If you still want to buy, you need to figure out how much house you can afford. Here’s what they have to say…

Economic differences between renting and owning
If you’re looking for the best return on your money, historically you’re better off investing in the stock market than buying a house. Primary homes generally don’t earn the investment return of financial instruments such as mutual funds. While the stock market’s long-term average rate of return is in the range of 8 percent to 10 percent, housing historically has appreciated on average in the low- to mid-single digits. Don’t buy solely for investment gain.

On the other hand, Uncle Sam helps out by letting taxpayers deduct part of the mortgage interest and real estate taxes each year. Borrowers get the benefit only if they pay enough in one year to exceed the standard deduction. But that usually happens, especially during the first few years of a mortgage when most of each payment goes toward interest rather than principal.

Sunny side of homeownership
Owners enjoy other benefits, too. They build equity over time as home values rise and their mortgage balances shrink. They also don’t have to worry about their housing costs shooting through the roof because lenders can’t boost borrowers’ rates and payments, unless those borrowers have adjustable-rate mortgages.

Cloudy side of homeownership
When something breaks at an apartment, it’s the landlord’s problem. When it’s your name on the deed, the problem is yours. If you throw every penny into a down payment, you’re taking a big risk because you may not have enough money left to fix leaky pipes or buy a new air conditioner.

Potential buyers might want to hold off for other reasons. If there’s a good chance that you will be laid off soon, you might want to wait. The same goes for people who plan to leave a job soon. The monthly payment isn’t the only obstacle for this kind of customer. Closing costs and other home-buying fees, as well as the commission that most owners end up paying to real estate agents when they sell their homes, add up. People who have to sell after living in one place for only a short time can end up in the hole on their investments.

Explore all the options
Some middle-ground approaches to homeownership blend elements of buying and renting. Some of the more popular loan types are seller financing, “lease with an option to buy” and “contract for a deed” plans

Seller financing
With seller financing, the seller actually assists the buyer in purchasing the home, by “lending” the buyer either a portion of the amount to be financed or the entire amount.

Let’s say the buyer and seller agree on a price of $150,000 for the house. In many cases a lending institution would require a 20-percent down payment — $30,000 — and give the buyer a mortgage for $120,000. But if the buyer has only $15,000 cash, the seller could “take back” a second mortgage for the $15,000 the buyer is short. The buyer makes payments on the first loan to the bank and the second loan to the seller.

Another example of seller financing: If the sale price of the home is $150,000 and the buyer has only $15,000 for a down payment, the buyer gives the $15,000 down payment directly to the seller who agrees to carry the entire mortgage amount of $135,000. The buyer would make all payments directly to the seller.

Pro: Seller financing reduces the cash needed to get into a home and could dramatically reduce closing costs. Often the seller will be more flexible in accepting an underqualified buyer.
Con: The seller determines the interest rate for that portion of the mortgage being carried, and it usually comes with a higher rate and a shorter term. Perhaps most importantly, it very often comes with a balloon payment. This means that monthly payments would be computed as though the mortgage was to continue for, say, 30 years, but at the end of five or 10 years the entire remaining balance has to be paid in one lump sum. That normally requires refinancing at that point, when rates could either be lower, higher or about the same, or selling the house to meet that balloon payment. Story

So you want to buy a place of your own but can’t figure out how to pull together the necessary cash and financing? If you’re willing to think creatively, MSNMoney offers us seven offbeat options for buying your first home:

  1.  The Fixer Upgrade – When you can’t afford what you want, look for what you can afford and use it as a stepping stone.
  2. The Shared Load – If buying your own property is prohibitive, consider buying into a dwelling with shared ownership. There are several options here, with varying levels of complexity and commitment. One of the most common uses a legal form of ownership called “tenants in common.”
  3. The Friendly Option – If you don’t want the legal hassle of setting up a TIC, it’s possible to buy a property with a friend you trust, sharing the mortgage and the title. This form of ownership is called joint tenancy, and it’s the way most married couples hold property.
  4. The Instant Neighborhood – Cohousing has its origins in Europe and is practically like buying a neighborhood along with your house. Residents own one of a group of small homes clustered together and share ownership of the land.
  5. The Parental Plan – Saving enough for a down payment usually requires some kind of a sacrifice, so don’t rule out living with family.
  6. The No-Money-Down Hail Mary – It can be tough to save enough cash for a down payment, but in certain circumstances you can finance your way around it.
  7. The Susu Super-Saver – This simple saving strategy goes by different names in different communities, but the method is the same. Members of a “susu” contribute a fixed amount each week or month for a certain period (e.g. $200 a month for 10 months). At regular intervals, one member gets a specified payout in cash.  

Read the full story for examples, pros, and cons of each of these offbeat options 😉 

Mortgage BasicsAdjustable or floating rate, 15-year or 30? How much mortgage can you afford? These are just a few of the many questions home buyers will find information on in Yahoo! Real Estate’s How-to Guide of Mortgage Basics.

So before you start mining for the perfect mortgage, make sure you have an understanding of the options available to you and check out their report. Some highlights include the following:

  • The first step in acquiring a home mortgage is to gather the information you’ll need to include in a mortgage application.
  • Review your credit report by ordering a copy from the credit bureaus used by local mortgage lenders.
  • Prequalifying for a mortgage lets you know how much you can afford and makes you a more attractive buyer.
  • Conventional mortgages limit housing costs to 28 percent of gross income and total debt payments to 36 percent of gross income.
  • Mortgage terms are usually 15 or 30 years. The longer the term, the lower your monthly payment, but the higher your overall interest costs.
  • Thirty-year loans often permit additional principal payments. One additional monthly payment per year will reduce a 30-year loan to 22 years.
  • Interest rates are fixed or variable over the term of the loan. Variable rates may be best for buyers who plan to sell within three years.
  • Generally speaking, one point is worth 1/8 of 1 percent off the loan rate.
  • A balloon payment is a lump sum payable at the end of a specified term.
  • Points and interest on mortgages or home equity debt are usually tax deductible.

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