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Austin has been named the most aspirational city in the nation by the Daily Beast for attracting ambitious citizens.  The website ranked the country’s top aspirational cities –  also referring to them as “magnets of opportunity.” After Austin as number 1, Houston came in number 3, San Antonio number 9 and Dallas number 11. The Rankings focused on economic indicators such as employment growth and per capita income, demographic factors like growth among immigrant residents and quality-of-life factors, including traffic congestion. Austin was ranked as a “place where people can enjoy the cultural amenities and attitudes of ‘progressive’ blue states but in a distinctly red-state environment of low costs, less regulation and lower taxes.” Austin also showed the largest “Brain Gain” with a 20.6% increase in new residents with a BA degree.

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A city at its best, wrote the philosopher René Descartes, provides “an inventory of the possible.” The city Descartes had in mind was 17th-century Amsterdam, which for him epitomized those cities where people go to change their circumstances and improve their lives. But such aspirational cities have existed throughout American history as well, starting with Boston in the 17th century, Philadelphia in the 18th, New York in the 19th, Chicago in the early 20th, Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by midcentury Los Angeles, and San Jose in the 1980s.

Yes, the great rule of aspirational cities is that they change over time, becoming sometimes less entrepreneurial, more expensive, and demographically stagnant. In the meantime, other cities, often once obscure, suddenly become the new magnets of opportunity.

To determine America’s current aspirational hotspots, we focused in large part on economic indicators, such as employment growth, per capita income, and unemployment. But we also took into account demographic factors, such as the growth of domestic migration and the movement of college-educated people and the foreign born.

Finally, we considered quality-of-life factors such as traffic congestion, housing affordability, and crowding—which are keenly relevant to young families hunting for the places with the best “inventory of the possible.” In a sense, we believe aspirational cities reflect a kind of urban arbitrage, where people look for those places that provide not just economic and cultural opportunity but a cost structure that allows them to enjoy their success to the fullest extent.

Our top two cities reflect the importance of  this arbitrage opportunity. Both No. 1, Austin, Texas, and No. 2, New Orleans, are places where people can enjoy the cultural amenities and attitudes of “progressive” blue states but in a distinctly red-state environment of low costs, less regulation, and lower taxes. These places have lured companies and people from more expensive regions, notably California and the Northeast, by being not only culturally rich but also amenable to building a career, buying a home and, ultimately, raising a family in relative comfort.

Like the Texas state capital and the legendary Crescent City, most of our top cities are located in the American South and lower Midwest, and they attract businesses and people not only from other sections of the country but also increasingly from abroad as well. These include No. 3, Houston, and the smaller but burgeoning oil town of No. 4, Oklahoma City. These are followed by three fast-growing, low-cost Southern cities: No. 5, Raleigh-Cary, North Carolina; No. 6, Nashville; and No. 7, Richmond, Virginia.

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Not all our top aspirational cities are in Dixie. If there’s enough growth and opportunity, solidly blue-state regions can perform well enough to stay near the top of these rankings. Such cities include No. 8, Washington, D.C., and No. 10, Minneapolis–St. Paul, as well as No. 12, Seattle; No. 16, Denver; and even No. 22, Boston. In these cities, high-tech and professional-service growth has created enough wealth to offset higher costs while offering the next generation the chance to live in a culturally vibrant place where affording a home and raising a family are still possible.

Perhaps more surprising is the high aspirational ranking of some old Rust Belt and Great Lakes cities. The middle part of the country has been losing people and jobs for half a century, but more recently several urban areas within or bordering the Midwest have established enough of an aspirational culture to reverse the pattern of out-migration and begin luring people from the coasts. These include such diverse places as No. 15, Columbus, Ohio; No. 17 Louisville, Kentucky; No. 21 Pittsburgh; and No. 23, Indianapolis.

Of course, not everyone will find a perfect match in one of these cities. For those with extraordinary technical skills, for example, it still may make sense to move to the hotbed of the San Francisco Bay Area—notably No. 24, San Francisco, and No. 27, San Jose—where economic opportunity partially offsets extraordinarily high costs, at least for a certain portion of the population.

This applies as well even to cities toward the bottom of the list, including No. 46, New York, and, in last place, No. 51, Los Angeles. If you want to break into businesses such as finance, media, and entertainment, you have little choice but to concentrate on New York or Southern California. These areas may also prove more attractive to people who have inherited money (critical to affording houses or paying high rents), as well as those whose business is closely tied to these great cities’ ethnic economies.

People must also make tradeoffs when they decide where to locate. Some value a big house and yard, while others cannot abide a city without a decent opera or good Thai food. And those obsessed with, say, their children’s educations will clearly find a broader variety of schools and cultural institutions in San Francisco or New York than in Oklahoma City.

But for those who lack these specific demands, and for those whose priority is achieving a middle- or upper-middle-class quality of life, the less expensive, often smaller, and less congested cities seem to have  the greatest appeal. This may offend the sensibilities of retro-urbanists, who tend to cluster in the great legacy cities, along with our tribes of cultural tastemakers, but the hard reality shows that, for the most part, people move to places that offer not merely the best lattes or artisanal pizzas but the great opportunity for advancement.

The Geography of Growth

We give economic growth roughly half of the weight in these rankings. This consists of three factors: employment growth, unemployment, and per capita income. This is where some of the coastal cities still do well, notably San Jose, whose recent job growth places it first, as well as No. 4, Washington, and No. 7, Seattle. The local economies in these areas have all been driven by the rapid expansion of high-tech and professional services, which explains their particularly high per capita GDP numbers.

Yet most of the big winners in the economic-aspiration sweepstakes are concentrated elsewhere, notably in Texas. Since the recession, the Lone Star State has created 1 million new jobs, five times as many as New York state. In contrast, Florida and California have lost a half million positions. Not surprising, Texas accounts for four of the top 11 regions for economic opportunity (No. 2, Austin; No. 3, Houston; No. 9, San Antonio; and No. 11, Dallas).

No big economic region outperforms Houston, a metropolitan area of more than 5 million people that boasts arguably the strongest big-city economy in the nation. Not only the global hub of the energy industry, it also boasts the nation’s largest medical center and has dethroned New York City as the nation’s leading export center. Other strong performers include No. 7, Salt Lake City; No. 8, Oklahoma City; and No. 11, New Orleans, all of which have enjoyed strong job growth over the past five years.

What Do You Get for the Money?

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Strong economic growth—particularly high per capita incomes—represents half of our ranking, but this is balanced by considerations such as cost of living, housing, and traffic congestion. “Everyday life,” observed the great French historian Fernand Braudel, “consists of the little things one hardly notices in time and space.” This reality is particularly critical for young and prospective families, for whom a higher salary or glamorous environment may mean less than the prospect of owning a decent home, particularly without the necessity of a long, dispiriting commute.

These factors, we believe, will become more paramount as members of the large millennial or “echo boom” generation enter their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s over the next decade. This demographic—projected by the census to expand by roughly 8 million by 2025—is likely to prove intensely interested in owning their own homes. Indeed, research by generational analysts Morley Winograd and Mike Hais demonstrates that not only do millennials aspire to homeownership, but among the oldest cohorts of this group, now just entering their 30s, interest in buying a house actually surpasses that of their boomer parents.

This difference in the affordability of housing relative to incomes plays a major role in boosting the rankings of some strong aspirational areas, notably Raleigh; Richmond; Charlotte, North Carolina; Kansas City; and Indianapolis. Along with traffic congestion, it tends to bring down the rankings of most California metropolitan areas, including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well as such hipster hotspots as New York and Miami. We also include “doubling up,” where more than one family lives in a household, as a surrogate for poverty (since metropolitan poverty rates are not adjusted for the cost of living).

Demographic Destiny

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The last component of our rankings, accounting for roughly a quarter, lies in demographic trends. Like playing defense in basketball, the most important thing here is to watch the feet. The question is movement: where are people going, and where are they not? This tells us much about future trends and how people, as opposed to the media, actually view the best places for them to settle.

Our methodology concentrates on three metrics: domestic migration, growth of foreign-born population; and growth in the number of college-educated people. These groups reflect what may be thought of as “the canaries in the coal mine”—indicators of where people seeking a better life are choosing to settle. This factor seems to jibe with our overall rankings more than any other component.

The biggest beneficiaries tend, not surprisingly, to be places that are economically vibrant but not prohibitively expensive, such as Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Raleigh, Nashville, Richmond, and Charlotte. Over the past decade these areas have enjoyed by far the fastest growth not only in migration, but in college-educated people and perhaps most surprisingly in number of foreign-born people. Today immigrants are flocking to such unlikely places as Nashville, Richmond, Louisville, and Charlotte. As for the college-educated, they, too, are also migrating to these same aspirational cities, as well as to new hipster hotspots such as New Orleans and Nashville. The increase in B.A.-degree holders in these cities averages in the double digits or higher over the past decade, in some cases more than twice the growth in such traditional “brain gain” cities as Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco, New York, and Boston.

The Urban Future

As the younger generation, as well as newly arrived immigrants, begins to look for places to settle, raise families, and start businesses, they will flock increasingly to these affordable and demographically, economically dynamic regions. Yet it is likely that other factors—global economics, shifts in immigration, and technological changes—could influence the aspirational landscape in the years to come.

In thinking about the future, then, it is important to recall that not long ago some of the cities near the top of today’s aspirational list were facing seemingly irreversible economic decline, demographic stagnation, and even loss and deterioration of basic infrastructure. You only have to recall the dismal ’70s in Seattle, where post-Vietnam budget cuts inspired some to ask that “whoever is last to leave turn out the lights,” or Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth after the oil bust in the ’80s, when those cities were widely known for their “see through” office buildings and abandoned housing complexes.

It’s always possible that unpredictable and major shifts could topple today’s aspirational cities from the top of the list. However, given current conditions and the most likely accrual of current trends, we can expect that most of the cities at the top of the aspirational rankings will remain there for some time to come.

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Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

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You’ll encounter special joys and hurdles when you’re alone in the deal. These 8 strategies will smooth your path to buying.

If you’re single and thinking of buying a home, you’re in great company. Solo buyers made a quarter of all U.S. real-estate purchases last year, according to the National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers 2012. Twice as many single women bought homes as did single men. 

Buying a home as a single person is much like buying with a partner. You shop, select and finance a piece of property, as all buyers do.

But there are distinct differences when you’re alone in the deal. All the joys and burdens are yours alone. The research, the shopping, the financing and, eventually, the bills and upkeep – yep, all yours. While that probably sounds obvious, there are implications you may not have considered.

Master of his domain
Carl Toll, a single, 36-year-old network technician, bought his 1,600-square-foot Denver home in 2007, after a bad roommate experience soured him on the rental life.

“This isn’t working out,” he decided after the housemate moved out without telling him. “I want to be the master of my own domain.”

Shopping and purchasing were pretty easy, he says. He thought through each aspect of his purchase carefully. He wanted a low-maintenance home: “I didn’t want to have to replace water heaters and furnaces right off the bat.” So he looked for something built recently.

He’s not a parent, but he shopped only in highly rated school districts to help ensure the resale value of his purchase. He has enjoyed the house, the neighborhood and the sense of independence that owning his own home gives him, he says.

Getting a mortgage alone
Toll’s experience was smooth, but many solo buyers face challenges. The recession has been one of the biggest. In the early recession years, single homebuyers enjoyed a boost from federal first-time-homebuyer tax credits in 2009 and 2010.

Stacy Erickson, a 29-year-old professional organizer, bought her 700-square-foot co-op apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in 2009. “That was a really good year for people like me,” she says. “I was able to borrow some money for a down payment and then pay it all back with the tax credit.”

But by 2011, the recession hit solo buyers hard. “Single-income households are more reluctant to make big-ticket purchases in times of economic uncertainty,” according to the NAR’s Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. Home purchases by singles fell an “unprecedented” 7% between 2010 and 2012.

The biggest hurdle for singles is qualifying for a mortgage. “In most cases that I see, it is more difficult for a single buyer to purchase than a two-person household,” says Craig Tashjian, vice president at Fairway Independent Mortgage in Needham, Mass.

One bonus: Singles aren’t dragged down by a partner’s credit score, loans or credit card debt. Tashjian says couples often get stuck with a higher interest rate because of one member’s low credit score.

Couples, though, usually have an advantage, says Marcus McCue, executive vice president at Guardian Mortgage Co., which operates in Texas and Michigan. Not only do they have two incomes but also, when sharing overhead, “one plus one usually equals more than two, as many expenses are joint and not duplicated.”

Difficulties in qualifying sometimes lead buyers, especially younger ones, to ask parents or other relatives for financial help.

“I have seen people choose to continue renting as a result of not wanting to involve any other parties in a purchase and pay more rent than they would if they purchased,” New York real-estate agent Brad Malow says.

Shopping solo — the triumphs
Single shoppers are alone with all the decisions required to buy a home. That can be harrowing. But there’s also a special sense of accomplishment to buying a home alone.

“I was the one who had to come up with all of the financing without support from a spouse or partner,” Erickson says. “However, I was also the one who got the choices and all of the decisions. I didn’t have to worry about someone else and what they liked or didn’t like.”

Homebuying is a means of self-expression, particularly for singles, says Jennifer De Vivo, an Orlando, Fla., real-estate agent. “It’s a way for singles to express their lifestyles and values. They are able to focus on the exact communities, home styles and features that cater to their individuality with much less compromise.”

Despite the exhilaration, buying solo can be nerve-wracking without a confidant and sounding board. To compensate, singles often work more closely with their agents. In the best cases, they form a tight bond.

“I find that I become more involved, like a friend,” says Jerry Grodesky, managing broker at Farm and Lake Houses Real Estate Inc. in Loda, Ill.

Watching the satisfaction that single buyers get from tackling one of life’s major milestones on their own is rewarding for an agent, Malow says. “I have to say that the closings with these buyers just thrill me.”

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original article by: Marilyn Lewis of MSN Real Estate

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Where smoke and swagger meet urban ethnic style with a twang.

Star Tastemaker
Tyson Cole of Uchi and Uchiko, who shook the scene with his landlocked sushi mecca andhas launched talent such as Top Chef contestant Paul Qui, whose first                                    solo venture, qui, opens in Austin this month.

Best Bites
Brisket ($10/plate) with espresso BBQ sauce at Franklin Barbecue; Hill Country Board (pain au levain, sausage, venison pâté infused with Real Ale Brewing Company’s Sisyphus barley-wine ale, pickled vegetables, and house mustard; $15) from Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden; Laura Sawicki’s Miso-White Chocolate Semifreddo ($9) with crispy rice, coconut sticky rice, and mango sorbet at Sway.

Nightcap
A Joe Buck (corn whiskey, Dijon syrup, lemon juice, and ginger beer; $12) at Midnight Cowboy.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Story by Paula Disbrowe

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As the stumbling retailer tries to rebuild ties to shoppers, it has a massive employee morale problem to deal with as well.

Under ousted chief executive Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney (JCP -1.47%) had a massive housecleaning, sweeping away thousands of  jobs as it eliminated popular clothing lines like St. John’s Bay.

 

Now, returning CEO Myron Ullman has a knotty problem on his hands: how to revive those brands with a company suffering from deep morale problems and an employee base that has shrunk by 23%, reports The Wall Street Journal.

 

When Johnson completed his first full fiscal year on the job, Penney employed only 116,000 people, down from its recent historic level of 150,000, according to the report.

 

While the ex-CEO argued that the job cuts were needed to boost Penney’s financial performance, the opposite resulted: Loyal customers fled, with many angered at his decision to dump St. John’s Bay. Sales plunged 25% last year.

 

St. John’s Bay may have been a linchpin leading to Johnson’s failure. MSN moneyNOW readers often cited the disappearance of the casual-wear clothing line as the reason they abandoned Penney stores.

 

“If JC Penney brings back the brands that they ditched, St. John’s Bay women’s jeans for instance, I will think about shopping there again……but not until then,” one reader wrote on Thursday.

 

And it turns out that Penney is planning on bringing back the clothing line, which had brought in annual sales of a billion dollars, The Journal notes.

 

Why would Johnson single-handedly get rid of a brand that racked up such huge sales? The former Apple executive wanted to “de-frump” the stores and instead brought in edgier designers such as Cynthia Rowley. The problem, though, was that Penney customers had been happy with those comfortable clothing lines. Feeling alienated, many of them swore off shopping at the retailer.

 

Johnson misunderstood the store’s customer base, which tends to be older than 55. One-third of its customers earn less than $35,000 a year, according to BloombergBusinesswee​k. Getting rid of coupons also alienated his price-conscious customers.

 

Penney plans to return coupon advertising to newspapers, activist investor William Ackman said on Thursday, according to Bloomberg. The company needs to “calm the vendors,” he added.

 

But what to do about those morale problems? According to The Journal, the layoffs weren’t pretty. Because Penney didn’t have enough staff to cut people in face-to-face meetings, groups of employees were ushered into Penney’s auditorium to hear the news. Sometimes more than 100 people were fired at once, the story notes.

 

With Ullman’s plan to bring back St. John’s Bay, he might be taking one step toward dealing with his alienated customer base. And getting rid of Johnson was likely a big boost to internal morale. According to the New York Post, clapping and laughing erupted last Monday at an employee meeting when word of his ouster was announced.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Aimee Picchi

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These homes still watch programs but mostly on laptops, tablets and phones.

There are 5 million “zero-TV” households in the U.S., more than double from 2 million in 2007. It’s a small but growing trend that has the media establishment plenty worried.

These people, who make up fewer than 5% of U.S. households, haven’t stopped watching television shows. They just do it on their own terms over laptops, tablets and cellphones.

As Nielsen notes, about 75% of these homes still have TVs, but people use them mostly to play video games and watch DVDs.

This creates a huge problem for the industry, one that will likely be a key topic at this week’s National Association of Broadcasters’ annual trade show. Content creators and broadcast networks make money from these viewers through arrangements with streaming sites such as Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu and through advertising on their websites and apps, according to The Associated Press. Television stations, however, get shut out.

“Unless broadcasters can adapt to modern platforms, their revenue from zero-TV viewers will be zero,” the AP says.

The New York Times on Monday noted the trend of people sharing passwords for video-streaming sites such as HBO Go, which is owned by Time Warner (TWX +0.74%), making it even easier for cable users to cut the cord.

Though more than 130 TV stations in the U.S. broadcast live signals to mobile devices, most users don’t have the tools to receive them. The dongles that catch those signals are just starting to be sold, according to the AP.

A handful of video-streaming sites have become hot properties. Hulu, for example, has reportedly received a $500 million bid from former News Corp. (NWS +2.20%) president Peter Chernin. The site is jointly controlled by News Corp. and Walt Disney (DIS +1.86%).

Luckily for broadcasters, most people are still transfixed by the boob tube. According to Nielsen, Americans spend an average of nearly 41 hours a week, or about 5.5 hours a day, watching content across all screens. People spend more than 34 of those hours in front of a TV.

Even so, given the technological changes in the works, the television industry 10 years from now may not look much like it does today.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Jonathan Berr

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Lenders look at other factors, not your credit score alone, before approving a condo loan.

Some lenders can make condo buyers with pristine credit feel like rejects. Blame it on the building.

Before making a loan to a would-be buyer, lenders comb through the building’s financial statements to see if too many condos remain unsold, or if units are mostly rentals instead of owner-occupied. Lenders also look to see if the building’s cash reserves, which help cover maintenance costs, are too low.

These factors — which have nothing to do with a potential buyer’s finances — can put a chokehold on a loan.

A lot of condo buildings don’t make the grade. At national lender EverBank, for instance, roughly 30% of condo mortgage applicants encounter a roadblock due to the building’s finances. “A perfect borrower can’t fix a bad project,” says Tom Wind, executive vice president of residential and consumer lending at EverBank.

Shaky condos have been popping up more frequently over the past two to three years, even in luxury buildings, says Zeke Morris, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors. Real-estate agents say they’re also prevalent in other markets, including Houston and Miami.

In general, lenders say they view condos as riskier purchases than other homes. Much of that stems from condo-association fees. If existing owners are behind on those payments or many units remain unsold, monthly fees are likely to rise to help cover costs.

At some point, lenders argue, those expenses could rise to a level where an owner can no longer afford to pay the fees and walks away from the property, leaving the lender with the outstanding mortgage. That’s why, currently, it is almost impossible to get a mortgage — regardless of your wealth — if more than 15% of condos in a building are behind on dues, says Jeff Gennarelli, president of Bridgeview Bank Mortgage Co., based in Lombard, Ill.

But luxury buyers have alternatives besides paying all cash for the condo. One is private mortgages, loans that lenders hold on their books rather than sell to the government. They tend to be larger than traditional loans, require larger down payments and are often offered only as adjustable-rate mortgages. Rates are also generally higher than traditional mortgages.

Private loans are sometimes the only source of financing for condos sold in luxury hotels and in buildings where more than 20% or 25% of the units consist of commercial space, like restaurants and shopping malls. They’re also common for a condo in a new building where a certain percentage of the units are still owned by the developer.

To find such a loan, borrowers should consider a community bank or other local lending institution where they have a lot of assets or where they have been banking for years, though an existing relationship isn’t always required. Or they can ask mortgage brokers who may know a lender willing to fund such a loan.

The opportunity for profit is partly why these lenders take on the risk when others won’t. Whatever leniency they offer on a building’s finances they often make up for by imposing strict lending requirements, including high credit scores, says Eddie Hoskins, president of First Florida Financial Group, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based mortgage broker that arranges such loans.

Some points to consider when applying for a condo loan:

Get an early start: Buyers should ask lenders for the list of criteria the building will need to meet; then real-estate agents can provide those answers when potential buyers shop for properties.

The type of building: Some condo buildings have a greater risk of not being approved for financing. Jonathan Cherry, senior mortgage banker at Wyndham Capital Mortgage based in Charlotte, N.C., says buyers who want to avoid financing complications might want to stick to mid- to larger-size buildings that are mostly owner-occupied.

Large down payments: With a private mortgage, borrowers often need to make at least a 20% to 30% down payment if it’s a primary residence. If it’s a second home, they could need to put down at least 40%. For investment purposes, cash is among the few options, since a mortgage may be impossible to get.

Rising costs: With adjustable-rate mortgages, rates could be low now but rise in a few years, thereby increasing the monthly mortgage payment. And borrowers could still end up with rising condo dues if the other owners in the building hit hard times.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: AnnaMaria Andriotis of The Wall Street Journal

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You can save 75% — or even more — when you buy these gently used items.

If you’re an avid thrift shopper like me, you know that every secondhand store has its own unique personality. Some stores are great for furniture, others for clothing; some seem to have the market cornered on books, and a few just seem to have older and more unique items than all the rest.Regardless of the personality of your favorite store, there are five standard items that you should always be on the lookout for in every thrift store. Here’s my not-so-scientific list of the top five items that offer the highest savings when compared with retail.

 

1. Shoes

If you can get over the mental roadblock of buying used shoes, it’ll do wonders for your budget. With decent-quality leather shoes ranging anywhere from $65 to $85 retail, scoring a gently used pair for $6 means you’re saving at least 90%. Focus on condition and pay special attention to soles and heels; avoid wear patterns that might affect your stride. Give leather some TLC with mink oil or shoe polish.

 

2. Belts

When did a buckled strip of leather with some holes at one end become worth $32? I’m pretty picky and my wardrobe reflects it, but I haven’t paid more than $4 for a belt in years. Sure, sometimes you walk away empty-handed. But if you’re willing to look and wait for just the right item, you can find great deals on all kinds of leather accessories like belts, wallets, and purses too.

 

3. Jeans

When I was a teenager, I saved for three months to buy a new pair of Guess jeans. I still remember the price back then ($40). Even in all their acid-washed glory, that seemed like an outrageous sum. Today, that’s a bargain price for an off-brand. Thrift stores are great places to take advantage of the growth spurts and fickle tastes of kids and pick up good-quality jeans for about $7. Deals on adult denim are easy to find too. It just takes a little patience, a few trips to the dressing room, and maybe a quick alteration.

4. Furniture

After you’ve been thrifting for a few years, strolling through most retail settings is like visiting a foreign land: You can appreciate the beauty, but you don’t understand what’s being said. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in furniture stores. Spending $219 for a nightstand or $389 for an accent chair? What language are they speaking?

 

Last month I made a quick stop at a local charity’s thrift center and found a club chair and matching ottoman for $80. It was so new it still smelled like the furniture store that had donated it. All it needed was one small repair to the roping detail along the top edge of the ottoman. It took all of 10 minutes to make it look showroom perfect.

 

Check your local thrift store for lamps, nightstands, coffee tables, and bed frames. They can usually be found in perfect or near-perfect condition. Items in rougher shape can become weekend projects and get a second life with a bit of sanding and varnish or paint. Often the sheer quality of older items makes them worthy candidates for a salvage project. Look for quality markers like solid wood construction and dovetail joints.

 

5. Books

Even if you have an e-reader, sometimes it’s nice to hold a book in your hands. And thrift stores are treasure-troves of good used books. Retail prices for paperbacks range from $12.99 to $14; at most thrift shops, they’re 89 cents to $2.99. That’s a minimum savings of about 75%. Thrift stores in college towns and larger cities seem to have the quickest turnover in books and the best selection. Grab some coffee and stroll through their stacks.

 

Successful thrifting is all about being persistent, knowing what you need today and might need tomorrow, and seizing a good a deal when you find it. If you know the right categories to mine, thrift shopping can be a way to save some serious cash by avoiding retail prices on as much as you can whenever you can.

 

Do you focus on certain categories when you thrift shop? What’s the best deal you’ve ever scored secondhand?

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Karen Datko

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You’ve got winter prep down pat. But what happens when you move to a climate with 70-degree February days? Here’s what you should know.

So you’ve finally fled the cold to somewhere where it’s warm year-round, and you’ve packed your garden trowel — lucky you.

Chances are you’ve also packed some northern notions about how to handle your new lawn and garden during your winter stay in the South or Southwest. Beware: Those carpet-bagging misconceptions could prove frustrating — and costly.

“People are generally pretty stupid when it comes to something new — and I was, too,” says Chase Landre, author of “Snowbird Gardening: A Guide for South Florida’s Winter Residents,” of when she started gardening in Florida. “It’s a completely different microcosm” in warm-weather areas.

Landre and other horticultural experts in snowbird hot spots have identified some of the top mistakes that new arrivals make so that you don’t repeat them.

Mistake No. 1: Importing your northern garden
When many snowbirds move to Florida, “They want the same stuff they were growing in Pennsylvania or in New York — which is kind of strange, because Florida offers so many other opportunities,” says Hank Bruce, a columnist, horticultural therapist and co-author of “Yankee’s Guide to Florida Gardening,” among many books. “You will try to grow lilacs, bearded iris, forsythia, lily of the valley and all those delightful spring-flowering bulbs, like daffodils and tulips — even when the neighbor tells you [they] ain’t gonna grow.”

What you should do: “Make friends with Mama Nature,” Bruce says. “You will be far more successful if you cooperate rather than compete with her. She’s gonna win regardless of what you do.”

In other words, plant what will grow in your warm-weather home, not in your cold-weather one.

Bruce suggests buying plants from independent garden centers. The stock at big-box stores may come from hothouse growers, Landre says, so the plants may not be right for the area or ready for a life in the blazing sun.

For Florida snowbirds, Bruce suggests visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando and taking pictures. “Nobody does it better than the Disney horticulture people,” he says. After all, they have to keep the park looking great every day of the year.

Mistake No. 2: Watering poorly
Snowbirds migrate south thinking about swimming pools and assuming that their plants want lots of water, too, says Peter Warren, urban-horticulture extension agent for Pima County in Tucson, Ariz. Driving to work in January, Warren will see puddles on the ground from people watering their gardens.

What you should do: Adjust. “Irrigation is … the No. 1 reason plants don’t do well — either under- or overwatering,” Warren says.

Plants need more water in the hotter, drier months in the desert — especially in May and June, before Arizona’s monsoon rains arrive. “In the winter, it’s the opposite,” he says. With higher humidity and lower temperatures, plants don’t grow much and don’t need much water. Overwatering is costly and can kill plants, he says.

In Florida, Landre suggests watering plants and lawns just once a week or once every 10 days in winter. Adjust the irrigation again for summer watering, if you leave in the spring, she says. Leaving the water off then can invite plant stress and insect infestation — and nothing for you to return to the next winter but disaster.

What you should do: “If your soil has no nutrients, you have to learn about amending the soil,” she says. That means giving your plants food. In a sandy place such as Florida, add organic peat moss to the soil before planting to “give the root ball a drink,” Landre says. Add composted cow manure, which enriches the soil. Fertilize the soil periodically, she says.

In the desert, the soil is more alkaline, with less organic material and higher salinity than in the North or East, Warren says.

“If you’re desperate to have hydrangeas or blueberries or something from back East, plant them in a container, where you can control the environment,” he says. “In other words, don’t force them into inhospitable soil. Even amending the soil in the desert isn’t successful in the long run. “It won’t work, and it will eventually kill them.”

Mistake  No. 4: Forgetting that things grow year-round
Snowbirds might reasonably come south in a northern frame of mind, thinking that their lawn and garden won’t grow much in the winter. They buy plants without much attention to how much things grow — and grow. (Bing: Find drought-tolerant plants)

What you should do: Plan for the growth cycle. Plants can grow larger and faster, but that may mean more work for you.

Not interested in more maintenance? Buy slow-growing or low-maintenance dwarf plants, Landre says. In central Florida, that might include evergreens such as Indian hawthorn, low-spreading junipers, giant evergreen liriope and dwarf nandina, according to Polk County’s master-gardener program’s tip sheet for snowbirds.

Mistake No. 5: Just watching the grass grow
Many snowbirds envision a lush, close-clipped green carpet of the kind of grass to which they’re accustomed. Reality is a bit more complicated.

“The grass is shy and retiring down here,” Bruce says. “Beautiful Florida lawns grow on sweat — your sweat.”

What you should do: Get ready for some hard work, or plant grass that’s easier to maintain. For Floridians, Bruce suggests annual rye.

“It grows fast, it’s dark green, it’s tough, it gives you something to mow for the winter months and then it’s going to die out in the spring,” he says.

Good year-round grasses include St. Augustine, a rugged grass that looks like crabgrass, grows well in the sand, handles pests well and can stay green. It must be laid as sod, however. Two other grass options, which can be seeded and need less water, are Argentine and Pensacola Bahia, Bruce says.

Homeowners in the Southwest desert usually choose a hybrid Bermuda grass, says Paul Ellis, a master gardener with the Pima County Master Gardener Program.

“That’s a grass here that in the winter is going to be dormant,” or brown, he says. Its growing season is the summer. Expect to water it a lot, he says.

Most experienced snowbirds, however choose xeriscaping — or low-water, natural landscaping — instead of grass. It’s less expensive and less of a hassle.

Mistake No. 6: Forgetting about the vegetable garden
For Northerners, winter is a time to leave the vegetable garden alone and let it rest and recuperate before planting again in the spring.

What you should do: Take advantage of winter weather that’s warm enough for plants, too cold for insects and just right for working in the garden. In Florida, for instance, fruits, potatoes and collard greens can grow in the winter, Bruce says.

Mistake No. 7: Thinking the sun sits still
You’ve planted local plants. You’ve watered them correctly. You have a timer set so they’re irrigated when you leave town. You’ve thought of everything — or have you?

Have you forgotten to account for the reason you came here in the first place: the sun?

What you should do: Know that the sun moves a lot throughout the year. “The sun moves more to the south in the winter and more to the north in the summer. And people don’t think about that when they are planting,” Landre says. “They don’t plant plants in the right spot, and the [plants] will cook in other times of year.”

Before you plant, ask yourself: Where will the sun and light be later in the summer? What’s shady now may not be in a few months.

“The solution to this is to find plants that like … both sun and shade,” says Landre, citing croton, arboricola and pygmy date palms, among others.

Mistake  No. 8: Ignoring microclimates
People come to the desert to warm their bones, and they naturally think that heat-loving plants will thrive everywhere. But microclimates, especially in the desert, can create extreme cold spots that must be considered. Without much cloud cover, winter nights can be chilly, with huge temperature fluctuations over 24 hours. (Bing: Find lawn-care services)

What you should do: “Consider the topography of your house and garden before you plant,” Warren says. For example, perhaps don’t stick that citrus tree down at the base of a hill. Cold travels downhill easily and pools in the low places. So if you’ve got a low point on your property, such as a dry riverbed, that place can be much colder there than elsewhere.

“Use mostly low-maintenance, slow growing, non-fussy shrubs and trees,” Landre says. “For lots of color, plant annuals, have year-round irrigation and become a patron of a good local plant nursery.”

 

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original article by: Christopher Solomon of MSN Real Estate

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Here are the alternative routes to approval.

For many homebuyers, establishing credit came naturally once they began working, applied for a credit card, took out a car loan or paid back student loans. But what about potential homebuyers who don’t have a credit score, either because they are averse to credit cards or have yet to build up a substantive credit history? Can they still apply for a mortgage?

The answer is yes, but “it’s exceedingly difficult to obtain a mortgage without a credit score,” says Tim Ross, president and CEO of Ross Mortgage Corp. in Royal Oak, Mich. “Lenders use automated underwriting systems that base a loan decision on certain criteria, including a credit score. But there are some nontraditional sources that can be used for credit verification.”

Mortgage lenders typically require a credit score of at least 620 or 640 to even consider an applicant for a loan.

Whether you prefer not to use credit cards, are new to this country or are simply a younger borrower who hasn’t built up enough credit history, there are some alternative sources that mortgage lenders can use to determine your credit risk.

While most lenders require three or more sources of credit, Clint Madison, a senior mortgage banker with Envoy Mortgage in Walnut Creek, Calif., says, “I’ve worked with borrowers who have a slim credit file and been able to get them approved for a loan. The first thing we look for would be 12 to 24 months of canceled checks or verification from a landlord of on-time rent payments.”

Alternative sources of credit
Here are several other items that can be used for nontraditional credit verification, Ross says:

  • Utility bills for gas, electricity or water, as long as they are paid separately from your monthly rent.
  • Phone and cable bills.
  • Car insurance, renters insurance, life insurance or medical insurance payments, if they are not paid by payroll deduction.
  • Child care or school tuition payments.

The more evidence you can provide that indicates a history of on-time payments, the greater your chances of qualifying.

“You need at least 12 months and sometimes as many as 24 months of payments to prove your creditworthiness,” Ross says. “A bigger down payment offsets your credit risk, and so does your job stability, your cash reserves and a high income in relation to your debts.”

Credit history matters
The reason for your lack of credit history will also affect your ability to qualify for a loan.

“If you’re living with your parents and have yet to establish any credit, it’s pretty much impossible to get a loan unless your parents are willing to co-sign for you,” Madison says. “The parents will need a credit score at a minimum of 660, and you’ll need to have at least two months, or maybe as much as six months, of principal, interest, taxes and insurance payments in cash reserves in the bank.”

Borrowers who are new to the United States may have a credit report from another country. Ross says those credit reports can be used to create a record of bill payments for a loan application.

You may not know your true credit score
Even consumers who have a credit history long enough to produce a score still need alternative sources of credit when applying for a loan. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently released a study that showed there are often discrepancies between the credit score given to a consumer and one reported to a lender.

“This study highlights the complexities consumers face in the credit-scoring market,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a news release. “When consumers buy a credit score, they should be aware that a lender may be using a very different score in making a credit decision.”

The problem, Madison says, is that borrowers are set up for false expectations.

“They may either be expecting to qualify for a better rate than they do, or they may lose out on opportunities for which they don’t believe they will qualify, when in reality they can,” he says. This is why having alternative sources of credit, which can help prove your ability to repay a loan, is important.

Establishing credit
Ross says it takes just six months of credit-card usage to generate a credit score, but lenders would also need other sources of credit in addition to your six-month-old score.

“Using alternative credit doesn’t change someone’s credit score, so if your score is low, all you can do is let time pass while you do the right thing over and over again,” Madison says.

It’s especially important that prospective buyers with thin credit consult with a mortgage lender, Ross says. A lender can provide them with a plan to follow to improve their chances of qualifying for a mortgage.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original article by: Michele Lerner of HSH.com

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If you’re justifying home renovations thinking that you’ll recover the costs when you sell, you may want to recalculate.

Homeowners who want to remodel will find both joy and sorrow in the 2013 Cost vs. Value Report, recently published by Remodeling Magazine.

The joy comes from the report’s finding that remodeling projects overall could be expected to return a higher percentage of their cost at resale in 2013, reversing a six-year decline in the recovered value of such investments. Every project on the national list posted a higher return in 2012 than it did in the prior year. The sorrow is that while returns are higher than they were, they’re still far short of 100%.

The complete list included 22 midrange projects, ranging from a $1,137 steel entry door replacement to a $152,470 second-story addition, and 13 upscale projects, ranging from a $2,720 garage door replacement to a $220,086 master suite addition.

Best return

In the mid-range category, the least costly project — that steel entry door replacement — posted the highest return at 85.6%  of the cost.

Other midrange projects that returned 70% or better were an attic bedroom, basement remodel, wood deck addition, garage door replacement, minor kitchen remodel, vinyl siding replacement and vinyl window replacement. The lowest-returning mid-range project was a home office remodel, which recouped just 43.6%.

In the upscale category, the highest-returning project was a fiber-cement siding replacement, which recaptured 79.3%. Other upscale projects that returned 60% or better were a garage door replacement, foam-backed vinyl siding replacement and vinyl window replacement. The lowest-returning upscale project was the master suite addition, which recouped just 52.1%.

Money-losers

And in those figures also lies the sorrow. That steel entry door replacement was the only project in the midrange or upscale category that achieved at least an 80% cost recovery, nationally. The home-improvement projects returned only a 60.6% national average. That’s not much of an incentive, financially speaking, for home improvements.

Replacement projects generally were a better investment than remodeling or room additions. Cost-and-value-recapture percentages varied widely on a regional basis.

Contractors agree with the positive outlook

Remodeling contractors have high expectations for 2013, according to a fourth-quarter 2012 survey by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry in Des Plaines, Ill.

The survey found remodelers reported better business conditions, more inquires, more requests for bids, more conversions of bids into jobs and a higher value of total jobs compared with the prior quarter.

Tom O’Grady, chairman of the NARI strategic planning committee and president of O’Grady Builders, a remodeling company, in Drexel Hill, Pa., said in a statement that remodelers were anticipating major growth in their businesses.

“Many (remodelers are) saying that their clients are feeling more stable in their financial future and their employment situations; therefore, they are spending more freely on remodeling needs,” O’Grady said.

The 2013 Cost vs. Value Report is a snapshot of generic projects and shouldn’t be applied to individual homes. Instead, homeowners should get estimates from local remodelers and discuss home values with a local real estate professional.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Marcie Geffner, HSH.com

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