Sunday, September 27, 2020

Next Step in Home Automation

We have been adding items to our homes for many years that have made our lives easier. Garage door openers, motion sensing porch lights and programable thermostats were just beginning. For those of us rehabbing houses for resale adding such devices sweeten and help close deals. Why is this? The techies find the gadgets fascinating, but everyone likes the idea of an easier life.

Tying the Gadgets Together

In recent years, using WiFi or hardwiring, many of these useful devices have been connected, sometimes into really useful networks and other times, it seems, just for the novelty. I find internet enabled refrigerators interesting, but have not brought myself to feel the need to get one. Granted, the price tag alone puts them beyond the reach of many consumers and leaves them in the domain of the die hard gadgeteer or the practitioner of conspicuous consumption.

Other things have actual practical uses, like video door bells and internet capable dead bolts. Working mothers get a sense of security when they see their children arrive home after school. The more affluent can unlock the door when the cleaning people come to their home. This approach is much more secure than leaving the key under the door mat.

These networks can pretty much run the whole house. My neighbor can sit in his living room and turn on lights in different parts of his house. He can adjust the temperature. He can lock and unlock his front door. And he does this by just talking to the system. And there is so much more. You can connect security lights and cameras, security systems, robotic vacuums... and the list goes on and on.

For myself, I'm happy controlling some lights and talking to my Google Mini. When I am traveling, I can let the family know I am thinking about them by flipping some lights on and off from my cell phone app.

A word of caution accompanies this capability, just like with your computer and phone. It is fairly easy to tie all these gadgets together. So easy, that the recommended security protocols may just be skipped over in haste to see the new creation working. This is something that is often overlooked because who wants to mess with your lights and AC unit? Your network is visible to your neighbors or that van parked across the street. You have teenagers living nearby? It may be innocent fun – or it may not be.

Ready For Prime Time?

These things have been around for several years now. Time for most of the bugs to have been found and squashed. This is more than just nice to see. It is essential. I have never wanted to be the first to try any new technology – with good reason.

Many years ago, during the early years of personal computing, I was at the largest MicroAge computer store in the country. The place had such a large volume that it sold AT&T computers to AT&T offices cheaper than they could get them from internal channels. Yes, AT&T made computers at one time and they were pretty decent units. However, the pervasive utility company thinking kept them from being responsive to changes in the market and they are no longer in that business.

This was about the time IBM was promoting the PS2, and Lotus 123 was the dominant spreadsheet program – prior to Micro$oft gaining control of the office workspace. The first version of DOS was being replaced by DOS 2.0 and all the techies jumped on this new and improved operating system.

It was not long before it was discovered Lotus 123 would not work on the new operating system. Of course DOS 2.1 came out shortly thereafter, followed by other revisions that would run the required Lotus program.

Lesson learned, and confirmed many times since. I am happy to let others work in the bleeding edge of technology. I recommend this for any technology. New stuff is cool but it is not possible for everything to be tested completely in every situation before releasing to the eagerly awaiting public. Self driving Tesla's are a current example.

This is why I am perfectly content to let others be the final testers of the product. Beyond that, prices usually drop after the initial introduction. That way I save time, aggravation and money.

Mature Technology

While are always new additions to the automated home, many things have been around for a while – long enough to have discovered most of the holes in the systems. Nothing is completely secure or foolproof, but in the years these things have been on the market, vendors have learned much.

It's a never ending game. Security holes are discovered and patched. Intruders don't just quit an look for other activities. They find new holes, and when discovered, those holes are patched. Ad infinitum!

Will you be perfectly secure with your whole house system? Total security is not possible, but you can reduce the possibility of intrusion by taking recommended precautions. Just consider the small chance of issues as the price for the convenience of the automated and connected home. It's really no worse than your internet connection.

Too Big a Price Tag?

If you like the idea of the automated home but find the checkbook a little thin for the entire system. You can put up motion sensing lights economically. If you like the idea of video monitoring but find the cost a little steep. You can give intruders the sobering impression they are being watched with dummy cameras for about twenty dollars each. Often that is enough, along with some kind of security system sign to keep them moving down the block. Your neighbors may not be happy if their home gets robbed, but it won't be yours.

So the automated home may be the ideal, but if you don't want to deal with the connection or security issues or you don't want to spend the money, sometimes the appearance will just about as good.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Lessons From The Lockdown

There is an old English saying that goes: it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. If we look for the good, even in a bad situation we can usually find some. We can look for some lessons we learned in our recent foray into house arrest and isolation – and there are some things we have learned and are learning as we move forward. Some of them are changing the face and needs of society and the places where we live.

Keeping In Touch

We have learned that there are ways to keep in touch with people all over the country and over the world without leaving the comfort of our home or office. We can see and hear each other without fighting crowds, traffic, paying tolls and parking.

While some of this technology has been with us for years, recent events have brought it to the forefront with some nice refinements. Many years ago I worked for a utility company in Richmond VA and we would periodically have visits from a facility in Connecticut... among other places. This would involve one or two people spending a day or two, accumulating travel expenses and being away from their regular duties.

When we began using teleconferencing, we could get whole teams from Virginia and Connecticut together to discuss common situations – and it only took an hour or two out of our day, with no travel time or expense. Zoom, and similar products, have given us this capability on steroids. The transportation and hospitalilty industry losses have become software and hardware suppliers gains.

This is not just a corporate gain, but many real estate investor groups have taken to meeting online when face to face gatherings were forbidden. What may have been intended to be a roadblock just became a minor annoyance.

Abandoning the Cube Farm

With the ability to communicate came the ability to actually work from home with no need to head on into the office to get much of the work done. For some this has been a blessing and for some, it has been a curse. For commercial real estate, it has shown a decrease in the need for high priced office space – and this is a lesson that will be carried into the future.

It has also reduced the need to live near the urban business centers and resulted in higher residential vacancy rates in these areas. I once knew several people who, because of real estate prices and quality of life issues lived in eastern Pennsylvania and car pooled on Rt 80 all the way across New Jersey to their jobs in New York City. To me, this was madness, but it was their choice. Today, that sort of thing is no longer necessary.

Becoming More Self Reliant

Since many of the places that made our lives more pleasant, or bearable, were deemed by our betters as being non-essential, we have found other ways to meet our needs. For instance, we used to eat out frequently, but for a time, dining in was forbidden. This provided the opportunity for meal delivery services that was not there before and will continue to some degree into the future.

Fortunately, for those of us who live in a free state, this activity has been restored months ago... and, in some ways is more pleasant as the restaurants are not as crowded, both by decree and because many people are still hiding out in fear of the plague.

I have read that many people have forsaken their gym memberships – in places where they are available. I see gym owners in many of the highly controlled states are fighting for the ability just to resume their business. We will see how many are left when the dust clears.

For myself, prior to the lockdown, I would be there three days a week. When they closed down, I, like many found ways to exercise at home. When, at last, they were given the green light to proceed, I went out there once and did the temperature check and wiped down the equipment before and after each use. But the second time when I pulled into the parking lot, all I saw were two ServPro trucks and workers unloading their equipment. Someone had snuck, or is it sneaked, the virus into the building and it had to be eradicated.

I went home and back to my own routine and haven't been back since. It looks like I am not alone and I have to wonder about the viability of so many similar businesses – and the implications for the use of some commercial space.

Pictures and Videos

Realtors and investors have been getting more creative in ways to buy and sell properties. Some still do door knocking, but many people are not happy about letting others into their homes. This also applies to showing the houses. I see some open houses, but not many, even though we are living in a free state. Reliance on photographs and videos has increased along with the sophistication of these items. However there is still no substitute for an in-person visit.

Lessons of Limitations

How many times has a house looked simply wonderful on the internet but turned out simply awful in reality? As an old photographer, I can say it is not difficult to make most anything look good by selecting your shots and post production editing. Pictures are great for initial screening, but not for final decisions. They don't show the twenty-five year old car up on blocks in the neighbors yard or the spongy floors in the bathroom.

While we can see and hear each other over our laptops, it does not give us as good a feel for the conversations we are having. If we know the person well on the other end, it is not so bad. However it is not a perfect substitute for meeting face to face and the impression of the grip on a handshake. For the time being it is what we have and we need to make the best of it, but accepting it as a “new normal” will only let is become used to the isolation it breeds.

The cloud meetings work relatively well in the corporate and organizational world, but in the real estate world we are working with individual home owners and buyers who may not have this communication capability. One solution is to adopt some kind of technology like my doctors office uses. He sends me a link on my cell phone and I give it permission to access my camera and microphone and we can see and hear each other. This works fairly well, but he can't take my temperature and check by blood pressure. Again, it is better than nothing but far from ideal.

Human Factor – Rejecting the New Normal

We as human beings are not meant to live in isolation, we are social beings. While some in the medical community are crowing about reduced infection rates, they ignore the increase in depression and, its ultimate expression, suicide. Some of this is simply from being alone with our negative thoughts, which are stoked by daily servings of television news, or by economic ruin brought about by the closure of “non-essential” businesses. Our GDP took a tremendous hit by closing down the economy, but the human toll goes on, unmeasured and generally unreported

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Making the Kitchen Pop... on a Budget

Whether you are getting your home ready for sale or doing a complete gut job, kitchens (and bathrooms) sell the property – but you already knew that. On the other hand, you may just be looking to fix the place up for your own enjoyment, possibly with an eye to the future.

You can do a great job with $50,000, $75,000 or $100,000. What happens if your budget isn't up to those numbers. You can still make the kitchen a cut above the others in your price range. A hundred fifty thousand dollar rehab project doesn't work well with a kitchen taking up one third the budget. So how do you make your project stand out?


Appliances are one of the first things potential buyers see when they walk in the room. If appliances aren't new, they need to be cleaned up to look new – as possible. If you are starting from scratch you can get some pretty inexpensive units at the blue and orange stores. If it is a low end rental, you can even find them at used appliances stores. They are working units that come from kitchen remodels.

But that's not the way to get the best price for your property. Cheap appliances are easy for your buyers to see. But you don't have to spend thousands of dollars for a range or refrigerator. Stainless steel has become pretty much expected in today's new units. Individually, they are only a hundred or two more than similar white or black models. Even with laminate counters, stainless steel makes a nice appearance. Although I have seen some pretty striking installations with white or black appliances. Don't let price scare you away.


If you can afford new cabinets, they make the place look great and are a nice selling point with features like soft close drawers and unique configurations. However, if the cabinets you have are solid, replacing the hardware can give it a fresh look. If the finish has seen better days, a good coat of paint can bring them up to todays look. It can also turn a dark kitchen into a bright and airy room. For a little more, you can replace the door and drawer fronts, This costs more than painting, but is a lot less than new units.

Counters and Backsplash

For entry level homes laminate counters can do nicely, but be careful of getting those nice custom made units... those prices are approaching low to moderate granite and quartz tops. You may want to go up a little for a big jump in the wow factor. However, if the project won't support that, the pre-formed units at the big box stores and look much better than than old worn and stained tops. If you have the skills and equipment to make your own custom tops, go for it, but you may still want to check out granite and quartz. Either makes a long lasting low maintance counter for nicer rentals as well.

I tend to use subway tiles for backsplashes. The are inexpensive and easy to work with. They are easy to clean and look a lot better than spaghetti stained walls. Don't let my preference be yours without checking out the range of materials, The subway tiles run a couple of dollars a square foot, and you can go from there up to fifteen or twenty dollars a foot on up and up, If your budget is on the lower end, the subway tiles, make a really nice look and they do it for a long time and are good even for mid range rentals on up.


Here is where a few hundred dollars can make your place stand out from the competition. A high end faucet package, a unique range hood, or light fixture that is not usually found at your price point can seal the deal for people whose taste runs toward a nicer home than their budget will allow, You are giving them at least part of their dream home at a price they can afford.


Tile is always a good choice, but can be pricy. There is a temptation to put laminate down. It looks good and is relatively inexpensive. Don't do it! Most laminate does not deal well in areas where it can get wet. The layers separate and your buyers or renters will be most unhappy.

There is a new product I have not used but looks like it has potential. It is a thinner tile that is made to be laid on top of existing tile flooring that is solid, but looking like it has seen getter days. It is not cheap, but it saves the demo work of removing the old flooring.

A less expensive approach is luxury vinyl. It is just slightly more than laminate AND it is waterproof, It does fine on kitchen floors and looks great. There are even groutable versions that I have had realtors get down on their hands and knees to confirm it wasn't ceramic tile. It is a nice touch and works just as well in bathrooms.

Catch Their Eye

The point of all this is that replacing or fixing up an old kitchen works better if you aren't just removing the tired materials and replacing it with the same thing, only newer. It is an opportunity to make improvements that make the place sparkle – and easier to sell or rent, if that is your inclination,

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Extended Eviction Moratorium – All Is Not Lost For The Landlord

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says “may you live in interesting times”. Interesting is a good term for the days we live in, made moreso by the fact that the cause of hyperventilation these days comes from China.

Numbers don't look like we are approaching a dip in the real estate market, however some people are experiencing financial distress, putting them in a position similar to the last major real estate crash, During that time, many people found themselves owing much more than their property was worth. The banks weren't in a bargaining mood, or people didn't try, so more than a few homeowners simply walked away from their property after living there many months while pocketing the mortgage payment.

This may happen this time around for those who bought with no, or almost no, money down and they have no equity to speak of and not much income. Fortunately, much of the economy is coming back and, barring a catastrophic event in November, may well continue and iron out many of these issues.

Commercial Owners Have Learned

Owners of some commercial properties that have been particularly hard hit by the Chinese flu inspired personal isolationism have adopted a similar strategy. Not to mention any names, they are available to those who seek them, some large hotel and mall organizations have stopped making payments on the troublesome locations... while they are gathering funds for investments better suited for today's world.

The economic slowdown is hitting the banksters as well. It will also be hitting local governments unless these same banksters will kick in the property tax payments. Some of these same commercial property owners, and others, have found a way to make lemonade out of these lemons. The ones with decent cash positions that help them weather this financial storm have bought back the notes at significant discounts.

Their actions, if nothing else, show us that when bad things are happening, don't hide under the bed in a fetal position, but look around. There ARE opportunities. You may have to understand leverage to make them work. I mean, what is a bankster going to do with and empty mall or hotel?

Bringing It Down To The Individual Investor

Will this strategy work for the individual investor with his rental properties? The banksters really don't want to take back massive numbers of properties. With banking regulations what they are, they cannot have too large a percentage of non-performing loans on their books.

Many investors buy properties with private loans from individuals – sometimes friends, sometimes sellers taking back paper on their properties. In these cases, it is not a faceless, heartless institution that gives money to causes you don't like, it is personal – real people getting hurt.

In either case it can be damaging to the property owner. With the banks, unless you had a good relationship that they did not require a personal guarantee on the loan, personal credit is trashed. Even if there was no guarantee, there will probably not be another similar loan in the near future. With inidividual lenders, your personal integrity, and possibly friendship, is gone, along with the potential for future profitable deals.

Considering Eviction

Whether you want to do it or not, sometimes evicting the tenant is a matter of your own survival. How many rent payments on how many units can you miss before the financial crisis sets in? I know of some landlords who start the process if the rent check is five or ten days late. I try not to rent to that type of tenant and don't like being put into that position. However, it is a fact of life when you provide housing.

Particularly if you have few units and know the tenants personally, you might even consider them to be friends. However if you have expenses and are running it as a business instead of a charity, sometimes you will find that their problems become your problems.

Years ago, I was offered a property that was rented to an older gentleman and his daughter. They were having trouble making the rent that was way below market, and the owner felt he would rather sell the place and let someone else deal with it. I looked at the place and talked with the man and came to the conclusion I was not the one to get the owner off the hook. For some of us this is not just a dollars and cents business... even though it IS a business.

Along Comes the Eviction Moratorium

Recently there has been heard in the back room of real estate investors offices a weeping and wailing about the CDC ban on evictions. That is nice for the renter but what about the property owner who still has mortgage payments and property taxes, and is still expected to maintain the property in livable condition. This ruling only takes care of half the problem.

Will the banksters forego payments? Maybe. Will the tax collector be sympathetic? Here you may have a little leeway if you aren't far behind already. How about the electric company if you have been handling the utilities?

No Need To Panic

Things are not as dire as you might think from listening to the talking heads on TV. Tenants can't just use this as an excuse to stiff the landlord. They have to apply for this protection and show that they have lost their income and that they have paid as much as they could toward their rent. If run properly, it will not be a haven for deadbeats.

As is usually the case, if there are tenants who have been hurt financially by thie panic-induced shutdown, and you are generally happy with them, working out some kind of deal is usually better than kicking them out. If you have a bank loan, now may be the time to revisit the terms of the loan. The same may apply to private lenders, but keep in mind most banksters do have the resources to carry you (and your tenants) as BoA, if they chose to do so. Just keep in mind they can only carry so many non-performing loans.

All we can do is what we have been doing. Taking things one day at a time, looking for opportunities that may be lying just below the surface, and not being overcome by the gloom and doom served up to us on most news channels.