Good News for the Housing Market: Pending Home Sales Are Up

Another sure sign the housing market is in full recovery mode: Pending home sales rose 3.1% last month from January, according to the National Association of Realtors®. That’s a solid 12% higher than February 2014.

Good news for the housing market-pending sales are up

Strong sales in the Midwest contributed greatly to the gains by offsetting slight dips in the Northeast and South. The Pending Home Sales Index now sits at 106.9, the highest level since June 2013. Pending home sales are measured by contract signings. A contract is considered pending once all contingencies are met. At that point, sales are just waiting to close, making it a valid indicator of future home sale activity.

February’s rise from January gave a clear sign that cold weather had little impact on motivated buyers across the country. The Midwest was the standout, however: Pending home sales leaped 11.6% to an index of 110.4—a nearly 14% increase over February 2014.

“Several markets remain highly competitive due to supply pressures,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. “The return of first-time buyers this year will depend on how quickly inventory shows up in the market.”

Inventory remains down across the board. Homeowners have been slow to trade up, or even downsize, leaving few options for buyers looking to make the move from renter to owner. Still, the NAR is forecasting a 6.4% increase in existing-home sales this year. Likewise, prices are expected to increase 5.6%.

February pending home sales dropped in both the South (1.4%) and the Northeast (2.3%), according to NAR. That’s not the full picture, however. The South is still nearly 11% above where it was in February 2014, and the Northeast is 4% above a year ago. The West, a consistently strong performer, showed a 6.6% increase in February and is up a whopping 18% from last year.

As more Americans find employment, consumer confidence has risen. In fact, consumer optimism, as measured by the University of Michigan, reached a 10-year peak of 95.5 in the first quarter of 2015—its highest level since the third quarter of 2004. And the better people feel about the economy, the more likely they are to buy houses.

Published by Chrystal Caruthers on realtor.com.

4 BIG Design Trends to Try This Year

These materials, metals, and trend-forward goods explained by Tiffany Davis are too cool not to try at home.

After 10-plus years covering design trends — from the Birds-on-Everything Movement of a few years back to more recent nautical and neon pop-ups — I can finally share a trade secret: I’m having way too much fun to ever call myself an expert.

But I can tell you that not every trend is for everyone. Still, there are some that are too cool not to at least try.

Last week, I hit Architectural Digest’s Home Design Show for one of my favorite professional pastimes: ogling samples, designers, and things I wish to someday own in the name of scouting trends.

Here are my favorite four design trends spotted at the show, at least one of which you should try out in your own home this year.

1. Marble and polished concrete

Pretty (but not too pretty), with an airy visual vibe. These two “raw” materials are built to last — and enjoying a cool-looking moment in the decor spotlight.

Coil + Drift’s Dusk coffee table is proof that a living room table can stand as its own conversation piece (because with a table this stunning, who needs beautiful coffee table books?!).

Noble Goods’ walnut-wood-and-concrete Shard cocktail table is another stunning example, from the geometric lines down to a few simple inlaid brass rings nodding to gatherings and cocktail parties to come.

2. Copper and brass

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Seattle-based Ladies & Gentlemen Studio’s wares range from kitchen cutting boards to living room furniture to jewelry — and the label’s talent shines on all fronts.

Their Forward/Slash desk lamp feels as much like a swank desk accessory as a handy office staple, and the Aura Lights fixture is versatile enough to display in an entryway, over a mantel, or as the main light source in a living room or den.

Meanwhile, New York–based design shopkeeper/designer Michele Varian grounded her brass Mala pendants with an earthy, wanderlusty point of view.

3. Postfab woodwork

Sacramento, CA–based Stikwood has been beloved by indie design writers for a few years now. (I was one of them. I covered their online debut.)

Even more reason I was thrilled to spot them at this show, among household-decor brands that have been around for generations.

Stikwood’s premise is simple — and genius. Pick a wood finish you love. Measure your wall or desired surface. Receive stick-on slats that are easy to DIY apply and have trimmed by a local professional. Revel in the newfound feeling of homeyness, no matter whether you’re renting, buying, or going through a reclaimed-weathered-wood phase. (One of their top sellers, by the way.)

4. Modular furniture (with a human touch)

After spotting Debra Folz’s Wrap Extending dining table, I decided that hosting party guests with a card-table-turned-dining-table was no longer acceptable.

Folz’s diagonally folding design (which recently enjoyed its own New York Times write-up, by the way) is the first convertible table I’ve ever seen that doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s a convertible table.

There’s no leaf table awkwardness, and no card table awfulness. Just pop it into the shape you want and admire it — comfortably — from any angle. (Which is exactly what I plan to do should I persuade my husband to get one.)

Which new trend are you excited to try out at home? Share in the comments below.

This article was published by Tiffany Davis on Trulia Blog.

Tips for When Your House Goes Viral

‘Good Morning America,’ tweeting at Ellen and claiming your home on Zillow are a good start.

When you’re selling a house, you want as many potential buyers to see it as possible. Your real estate agent’s expertise can be a key factor here. But sometimes, like when you’re Yolie Ball of Davenport, FL, it’s all about your teenage granddaughter’s Twitter account.

So what do you do when it seems like the whole world wants to see your pictures? Here are three tips:

1. Get those photos out there as many ways as possible.

If your Zillow listing doesn’t include the viral photos, you can add them by claiming your home. (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Ball.)

2. Strike while the iron is hot.

We saw you on “Good Morning America,” and your granddaughter’s tweeting at Ellen. Perfect.

3. Figure out your next act.

What’s next for you, Mrs. Ball? Perhaps some design and home improvement projects? We’d love to see you on Digs!

Published by Stephanie Reid-Simons on Zillow Blog.

How to Get Your Home Ready for an Open House: Security Edition

Holding an open house is an act of faith. You clean, declutter, and prepare your home to look its best, hoping at least one of the visitors will fall in love enough to make an offer, preferably all-cash. At the same time, open houses are invitations to strangers to walk among your most prized possessions, often with only a single real estate agent present—and so there are very real security concerns, for agents and homeowners alike.

How to Get Your Home Ready for an Open House- Security Edition

At least 40% of the agents surveyed by the National Association of Realtors® for its 2015 Member Safety Report say they have experienced a situation that made them fear for their personal safety: Vacant houses, model homes, properties in remote areas, and open houses all caused trepidation. The study found that many now carry weapons for self-defense—no wonder when agents have been killed in the past.

For homeowners, however, self-defense takes place long before strangers show up at the door—and start looking in the refrigerator, the cabinets, the pantry. (A Maryland woman recently went to jail for stealing jewelry from open houses.) You probably know to lock up or take away valuables, but here are a few more things to remember:

Say ‘No’ to drugs

Remove all prescription drugs from your medicine cabinet, even the ones you think are harmless. There are so many tales of open house visitors rifling through medicine cabinets and taking a few pills, or even whole bottles. In comments on our site, a user calling himself Larry Kean described this very thing, saying people are looking for “abusable” drugs. Likewise, another user, Rose Eneri, wrote that her friend “found a guy looking through her medicine cabinet” at an open house: “Easy pickings for a drug addict or dealer.”

Control your remotes

Most people don’t think about the extra garage remote they leave dangling from a hook near the back door. It’s small and easy to slip into a pocket, so take it with you when you leave for the open house. One commenter wrote that an open house visitor may have taken the garage remote, then returned later to steal the homeowner’s Lexus! All keys, remotes, and fobs should either be locked away or in your pocket.

File this under ‘Lock & Key’

There’s a trend in home office decor to make file cabinets pretty and portable—but portability and security are not always compatible. Buy a heavy, nonrolling commercial-grade filing cabinet that locks—and into it put your important documents: birth and marriage certificates, financial statements, basically any legal, medical, or personal information you wouldn’t want falling into someone else’s hands. Identity theft is real and should be taken seriously.

What about my 50-inch flat-screen?

While it’s unlikely that anyone could walk out of your open house with your TV or other large electronics, they could come back for it. That’s why the next item is so important:

It ain’t over till you check your doors & windows

While agents will go through to make sure all lights are off and the house is in good condition after an open house, they might not check the doors. Unscrupulous people have been known to unlock a window or basement door with the thought of returning later. After the open house, walk through your house and check every window (even on the second floor), gate, and door to be certain that they’re all locked.

Published by Chrystal Caruthers on realtor.com.

Ask These 4 Questions Before Signing Your Mortgage

Before you sign on the dotted line to buy a home, ask your mortgage broker these questions.

Ask These 4 Questions Before Signing Your MortgageSigning a mortgage is a big deal — a BIG, big, big, big, deal that comes with a lot of paperwork. Even if you read the entire document, some information may still feel unclear. Before you sign on the dotted line to buy a home, ask your mortgage broker the following four questions:

What is the APR?

Notice that this question isn’t “What’s the interest rate?” — the question states, “What’s the APR?” There’s a crucial difference. The APR factors all of the ancillary costs of the loan — such as the interest rate, discount points and loan origination fees — while the interest rate only reflects one piece of the overall puzzle. Some lenders, recognizing that the average person might not understand the difference, will advertise a low interest rate for a mortgage that holds a higher APR due to the other associated costs. By law, lenders are required to disclose the loan APR, so search for that number to make sure you’re comparing apples-to-apples when you’re looking at different loans.

Does this Carry a Prepayment Penalty?

Let’s imagine that your boss calls you into his office and announces that you’re getting a sizable raise. Hooray! You decide that you’d love to put this money towards becoming mortgage-free, so you start making extra payments towards your home. But wait! Some mortgages carry a “prepayment penalty,” which is a fee that gets assessed if you pay off your mortgage early (or refinance into another loan). These fees can typically cost between 2% to 4% of the overall loan, and are usually applied against borrowers who repay their mortgage in less than 5 years. Some are flat rates, while others are on a sliding-scale depending on how early you pay off the loan. Read the documents carefully to see if your mortgage has a “prepayment penalty” (sometimes called an “early payment penalty”), and talk to your broker to clarify the terms and conditions around this clause.

Can we Review the GFE and HUD-1 Together?

By law, you’re required to receive a Good Faith Estimate, or GFE, within three days after your lender has accepted your loan application. As the name implies, this document is supposed to give you a reasonable estimate of the loan terms and the settlement charges. You’ll receive the HUD-1 at the closing table. This document will offer an itemized list of every charge and credit, including escrow fees, title insurance, loan origination fees, attorney fees, rate lock fees and more. The HUD-1 can be overwhelming in its scope, but it’s also quite comprehensive. Ask your real estate agent or mortgage broker if you can review the GFE and HUD-1 together, so that you can make sure that the HUD-1 (your final costs) are aligned with the expectations that the GFE established. Bear in mind that you may not receive the HUD-1 until you’re at the closing table, so you’ll need to make prior arrangements with your mortgage broker (or you’ll have to ask your agent if you can receive the HUD-1 early).

How Long will my Rate Lock, and what’s the Maximum Cap?

If you’re taking out an adjustable-rate mortgage, your interest rate will remain “fixed” for a limited number of years (such as 3, 5 or 7). After that, your rate may change. However, each ARM will have a “cap” on that adjustment — meaning that the rate can only adjust a limited number of times, at a limited rate. For example, the ARM might lock in your current interest rate for 5 years. After that, the rate will adjust at a maximum of once every six months, with a maximum rate hike of 1% at each adjustment, and an overall lifetime cap of no more than 6% above your current rate. If you’re taking out an ARM, clarify these limits and guidelines with your broker — and check your budget to make sure you can afford these higher rates.

Published by Paula Pant on Trulia Blog.

A Glass House Philip Johnson Would Love

In the snow, ‘it feels like we’re floating on this white sea.’

In the heart of 12.7 acres in New York’s Hudson Valley sits a see-through dwelling inspired by Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

Elegant as it is, the home isn’t exactly simple.

“Whatever time of day you approach … the house presents itself as multiple layers that dissolve into the site and one another,” reads the listing for the $1.95 million home.

The intrigue continues indoors: When the 14-foot-wide doors on the two bedrooms are slid open, “the rooms appear across the courtyard as stage sets, or dioramas,” said Philip Gefter, a former page-one photo editor for The New York Times. He built the house in 2004 with his partner, Richard Press, an architecture major and director of the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York.”

When the bedroom doors are closed, they reveal a wide bookcase.

Despite the brutal East Coast winter, Gefter said radiant heat has kept the home at 70 degrees, and with all the snow, “it feels like we’re floating on this white sea.”

Coming from New York City, they did have to adjust to the lack of curtains. There are tracks for hanging some, but Gefter and Press prefer the in-nature feel — and no one has intruded.

“Most people don’t even know the house is here,” Gefter said.

The home is listed by Jen Harvey, Russ Stein and Tim Lovett of Berkshire Property Agents.

Photos by Jen Harvey. Published by Melissa Allison on Zillow Blog.

A Guide to Safe, Ethically Sourced Wood Flooring and Alternatives

It’s been a rough month for Lumber Liquidators: Reports of unsafe formaldehyde levels in its Chinese-made wood flooring have shaken home owners and builders alike.

Contemplating the challenge of ethically sourced wood flooring. Credit: Flickr user emilysnuffer

Contemplating the challenge of ethically sourced wood flooring. Credit: Flickr user emilysnuffer

Lumber Liquidators claims the dangers are overstated and the cancer-causing chemical is safely contained by lamination. Others remain skeptical, saying a layer of plastic might not be enough to hold back dangerous fumes and leaching.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical, so there’s a little of it almost everywhere. Flooring manufacturers use it as an adhesive in composite wood products like plywood—found in “all-wood” engineered flooring—and the particleboard or fiberboard at the core of laminate flooring. It’s also in countless unrelated materials like synthetic fabrics, some shampoos, and even certain cosmetics. It’s all over our homes. State, federal, and international standards seek to limit how much is used, but products made by the uninformed or unscrupulous can slip through the cracks.

All American-made composite flooring is certified safe by various accredited third-party inspectors certified by the International Accreditation Service and the California Air Resources Board, said Kip Howlett, president of the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association. And so is the majority of overseas-manufactured wood. But it’s also possible to get away from formaldehyde altogether—though the price of doing so can come in dollars and inconvenience. You can’t just drive down to the strip-mall hardware store and pick up a load of cheap flooring—going formaldehyde-free requires research. Good news: We’ve done some for you.

New hardwood

Toulouse wood flooring from USFloors

Toulouse wood flooring from USFloors

This is what most people think of as hardwood floors: freshly cut wood planks from recently felled timber. It’s beautiful, classic, rustic, or refined, depending on how it’s stained and treated. Some manufacturers, like Georgia-based USFloors, use advanced staining techniques to make their boards look and age like antique wood.

Is it safe? With no gluing needed, there’s zero-added formaldehyde.

Should I feel guilty using it? Maybe. Anyone who has ever walked through a lush forest into a bleak clear-cut site knows the ugly side of logging, and there are plenty of gory videos of rainforests coming down. But a lot depends on geography.

Common North American woods are generally harvested where loggers are bound by U.S. timber industry regulations. Some companies, like Florida-based Goodwin Company, are going an extra step, harvesting only lightning-damaged trees.

Around the world, however, environmentally irresponsible logging has made some of the really amazing old-world hardwood an ethical challenge. Many people in the industry will steer customers away from products logged overseas, especially from South America and China. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species closely monitors sales of some mahogany, rosewood, and other hardwoods that are now plantation-grown because of their scarcity in the wild. If questions about black-market shenanigans ever haunt your flooring purchases, check with the Forest Stewardship Council, which monitors proper forest management and chain of custody issues.

What’s it cost? True hardwood planks can be expensive, hence the popularity of cheap, easy, composite wood products. On the low end, Home Depot and other big-box shops have cherry, oak, and maple available from about $4.50 a square foot up to around $8. It’s important to check with the salesperson that the product you’re buying is solidly the same wood all the way through. Descriptions can be very tricky, with different stores having different names for the same product. On the higher end, all-wood flooring can run $20 a square foot or more, depending on how the boards are customized.

Reclaimed wood

Authentic distressed heart pine wood flooring from Mountain Lumber Co.

Authentic distressed heart pine wood flooring from Mountain Lumber Co.

Reclaimed wood is the opposite of freshly cut timber. These are disused, discarded, or long-forgotten boards and logs just waiting for someone to salvage, denail, and resaw them into flooring. Reclaimers take wood from old fences, 19th-century warehouses, and abandoned barns, leaving nothing to waste.

Goodwin Company, for example, is pulling stunning, 1,000-year-old cypress trees from riverbeds and creating gorgeous flooring. Virginia-based Mountain Lumber Co. uses its website to ask owners of old barns to sell it their wood. New Jersey–basedEcoTimber makes flooring from old orchard trees that no longer produce fruit.

Is it safe? Reclaimed wood can come as whole boards or as the beautiful top layer of engineered flooring. The driving ethos behind companies involved in reclaimed wood makes the use of nasty chemicals highly unlikely. Goodwin, Mountain Lumber, and EcoTimber use nonformaldehyde glues in their engineered flooring.

Should I feel guilty using it? Not at all! With the dirty work having been done long ago, ecology-minded buyers can enjoy this wood’s backstory with a clear conscience. And while some reclaimed-wood companies also dabble in new hardwood, they source domestically and sustainably.

“We don’t take anything out of a rainforest, so no monkeys are being killed on our watch,” said Mountain Lumber sales manager Debra Russell. The reclaimed wood community is so tight that Russell doesn’t even mind naming her worthy, ethical competitors: In addition to Goodwin, she likes Pioneer Millworks, Elmwood Reclaimed Timber, and Olde Wood Limited. “We all do things the right way,” she said.

What’s it cost? The knots and century-old nail holes in these boards make them one of a kind and labor-intensive to clean and prepare. But for many, the look is worth the cost: about $5 to $20 (or more) per square foot, depending on the grain, custom cuts, and finishes.

Engineered wood

Walnut veneer from Columbia Forest Products

Walnut veneer from Columbia Forest Products

This is where layers of less-than-beautiful wood—usually plywood—are topped with a layer of nice-looking wood. In an industry with many different names for the same product, some companies will call their pulp-core laminate flooring “engineered wood.” It is important to know the difference. One is all wood and the other is not.

Is it safe? It can be. There are two ways to make engineered flooring without adding formaldehyde, Howlett said. One is by using polyvinyl acetate, which is best known as wood glue, carpenter’s glue, or the Elmer’s glue you used in school. It first came about in 1912 and is pretty much ubiquitous.

The second is a bit more exotic: It’s based on how mussels attach themselves to sea rocks. Developed by Oregon State University scientist Kaichang Li, who observed that the mollusks emit a special protein that gives them an extremely strong yet flexible hold even in the roughest of tides, this formaldehyde-free adhesive, made from soy proteins, is used by Columbia Forest Products in its engineered-wood flooring. The EPA liked it so much that, in 2007, it gave Li and Columbia the Presidential Green Chemistry Award. Columbia sells its formaldehyde-free wood to Mohawk Flooring, which is sometimes carried by Lowe’s and Home Depot as a special order.

Should I feel guilty using it? It depends on two things: what’s on top and what’s underneath. If your floors are a layer of rare teak logged by forest poachers in a Burmese jungle over a layer of formaldehyde-soaked plywood, you might have, uh, ethical issues. The watchdog group Green Building Supply advises being alert to “greenwashing,” where a thin veneer (pun intended) of environmental sensitivity covers an otherwise ecologically unsound product.

What’s it cost? The range is generally from $2 to about $8 a square foot, depending on a lot of variables, including how much is being purchased. Some discount sites go much lower, and one-of-a-kind flooring from reclaimed or rare lumber can go for $11 a square foot and up.

Bamboo

Amber bamboo flooring from Plyboo

Amber bamboo flooring from Plyboo

Hard and flexible, bamboo is technically a grass but makes really great “hardwood” floors. Like mowing a lawn, cutting bamboo for harvest doesn’t kill the plant, which can regrow 65 feet in less than four years.

Is it safe? Generally, yes. San Francisco–based Smith & Fong is using the formaldehyde-free soy protein to create its bamboo-based product, Plyboo. Great formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring is also available from EcoTimber and USFloors.

Should I fee guilty using it? Absolutely not. Ecologically sound bamboo harvesting has become a sustainable industry in many areas, replacing destructive logging. Companies like Smith & Fong are dedicated not only to toxin-free products but also to humanitarian causes in Haiti and Sichuan, China, and exploring how bamboo can help those and other areas hard hit by natural disaster.

What does it cost? Bamboo floors generally range from about $2 to $8 a square foot. Lower prices are out there, but the product may not be up to snuff. Young bamboo tends to be less durable than older plants.

Cork

A cork floor from Globus Cork

A cork floor from Globus Cork

Best known as a wine stopper, cork is another interesting wood-flooring option. Cork tiles are formaldehyde-free, highly resilient, easy to clean, reduce room noise, and even deter termites.

Quebec-based DuroDesign offers 54 colors and six patterns of cork flooring, all sustainably harvested and LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. There are a lot of other cork-flooring companies out there, including USFloors, NYC-based Globus Cork, and many big-box stores.

Is it safe? Yes. Cork flooring is about as free of formaldehyde as anything can get.

Should I feel guilty about using it? No. Rather than cutting down cork trees, skilled craftsmen remove layers of bark, which grows back fairly quickly. Harvesters say the trees actually benefit from the process as it vastly increases their lifespan.

What’s it cost? Favored by in-the-know architects and designers, the cork flooring sells for about $6 to $7 a square foot.

Published by Mat Probasco on realtor.com.