The Property Man: Tips for the First-Time Home Buyer


6 Smart Home Features That Have Caught On – and a Few That Will Soon

While there is a lot of talk about smart homes, few of those high-tech features are actually being incorporated into today’s homes. We are not yet living in the land of “The Jetsons.”

But homeowners are moving toward some smart home products, including thermostats they can control with smartphones, automated lighting solutions, keyless entry and security and entertainment options.

“Smart home technology is important for some homeowners,” says Nino Sitchinava, principal economist for Houzz, a home design website, which has done several surveys on the use of smart home features. “It’s not something that all homeowners are unambiguously into.”


The 2015 Houzz and Home survey found that 25 percent of homeowners doingrenovations deemed smart technology very important to extremely important, and 23 percent installed home automation systems as part of a 2014 renovation. However, the survery found that 30 percent of homeowners considered smart home renovations as not at all important.

When choosing smart features homeowners tend to gravitate toward products that are simple to use and less expensive, making remote control of temperature and lighting popular choices.

“They don’t value what they don’t understand,” says Danny Hertzberg, a sales associate with The Jills Team at Coldwell Banker in Miami Beach, Florida. Technology that thereal estate agent can’t demonstrate when showing a home doesn’t impress prospective buyers. “People are looking for how they can save money or what’s going to make life easier,” he adds.

Hertzberg finds that consumers like products like the Nest system, which includes thermostats, security cameras, and carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. The system integrates with a number of other products and can be operated via an app. The thermostat costs $249 (some energy companies offer incentives), making it a small investment for significant convenience.

“It’s very easy to install, it’s not that expensive to put in, it’s easy to use,” Hertzberg says. For a low cost, they can also get a simple product that enables them to control the air conditioning or the lights from the bed, he says. People can get separate thermostat or wireless lighting products or integrate the system by choosing a “Works With Nest” device.


For homeowners looking for a way to make their house stand out from the crowd, Hertzberg suggests they consider the Nest products as well as keyless entry systems, which allow you to open the door from a touchpad or an app. “Now that house is going to stand out from the house down the street,” he says.

In a 2015 survey by Coldwell Banker, about 33 percent of agents said homes with smart features sell faster, but almost 41 percent of agents said they did not. Agents said buyers were most interested in security features, temperature control and safety, followed by lighting and entertainment.

Many do-it-yourself smart home products have come to market, but few consumers are embracing those products, partly because they are more complex to implement.

“Consumers are really looking for simplicity in the interfaces for their systems,” says John Galante, president of AE Ventures, which just organized a smart home trade show in Orlando, Florida.

“Unless you’re looking for a very limited solution … you’re best served to have a level of pro installation involved,” Galante says. “Once you get beyond a single room, it tends to get complicated.”

Houzz recently started looking at home technology room by room. The 2016 U.S. Houzz Kitchen Trends Survey found that smart appliances weren’t being widely used, and the biggest smart feature utilized in the kitchen was color touchscreen displays. “Actually, the kitchens are not as high-tech as you would think. The appliances aren’t really talking to your smartphone,” Nino says. The Houzz survey found that only 6 percent of respondents used built-in apps with recipes and only 5 percent used wireless controls via smartphone or tablet to control a refrigerator or range oven.


As home entertainment technology improves, theater rooms are less popular. “The movie rooms are going away,” Hertzberg says. “You no longer need a dark, dark room and a projector.” Newer televisions provide a great viewing experience anywhere. “The price point has come down, and the systems have gotten so much better,” he says.

Here are six smart home features that homeowners are embracing now:

Smart thermostats. Thermostats have grown beyond a mechanism that you can program to raise and lower the temperature. Today’s smart thermostats can be controlled via your computer or smart phone and will even learn habits such as when you’re usually at home and if you raise or lower the temp when you get up or at certain times of day, like when you go to bed.

Lighting controls. Being able to control all the lights in the house with one device, to operate dimmers or to turn off the lights after you are already in bed are all functions homeowners value and can add at minimal cost.

Alarm systems. Today’s home security systems include controls for thermostats and lighting and have features that allow you to arm and disarm them remotely, using a computer or a phone. Security cameras also have fallen in price and grown in popularity among homeowners.

Keyless entry systems. With these replacements for standard locks, homeowner don’t have to worry about carrying keys. They can also give instructions to others on how to get into the home when they’re not there.

Shade control. Homeowners are embracing technology that allows them to raise and lower window shades at the touch of a button, plus set the shades to raise and lower when they are not there, to save energy or make the home look inhabited. “Shade control is taking off,” Galante says.

Hidden or unobtrusive built-in speakers. Wired speaker systems are still popular, but the speakers are smaller and there may be more than two to a room, Galante says. That makes it easier for homeowners to customize sound for, say, a party. More here.

Buying a Home? 10 Clever Ways to Save Money on Your Mortgage

What’s your biggest expense? If you’re like most people, it’s putting a roof over your head. And it’s getting more expensive.

In fact, the cost of housing is rising faster than incomes for the middle class, according to a National Housing Conference report. Renters may have the worst of it; the Wall Street Journal reports that rent has been rising for 23 consecutive quarters.

By buying a house, you have more control over rising housing costs. You won’t have to worry about a landlord raising the rent, and a fixed-rate mortgage loan guarantees the same principle-and-interest loan payment for the next 30 years.

Yes, borrowing for a home is expensive. Fortunately, with a few smart strategies, you can reduce your monthly mortgage payments and cut the overall cost of paying for your home. Here are some options:

1. Modify Your Loan

If you are late on payments or going through tough times, you might qualify for a loan modification through various programs.

Depending on the program, you could qualify for a reduced interest rate, forgiveness of part of the principal, or an extended loan period and lower monthly payment. Check out various programs or contact your mortgage servicer.

2. Cut Out the PMI

If you borrow more than 80% of the value of your home, you normally have to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI) to protect the lender. PMI typically costs between .5% and 1% of the loan amount. So if your loan balance is around $140,000, you could be paying as much as $1,400 for PMI just this year.

A down payment of 20% is the most obvious way to avoid paying for PMI. If this is tough with the homes you’re considering, suggests simply shopping for lower-priced homes for which you can make a 20% down payment. Multiply the down payment you have by five to arrive at the highest price you can pay while avoiding PMI. says some lenders still offer 80/10/10 programs. This structure allows you to borrow only 80% on the primary mortgage, so you don’t have to pay for PMI, and then borrow another 10% as a second mortgage loan — sometimes from the same lender. You generally need acredit score of 700 or higher to qualify.

If you’ve already bought your home, you can speed up those payments to get the balance below 80%, and then request that the PMI payments be dropped. Lenders do not always agree to drop the insurance requirement, according to, but at that point you could also refinance to get rid of the PMI. More here.

Is Your Home a Death Trap? How Mold Affects Your Health and Your Home’s Value

If you think your home is mold-free, you’re probably wrong.

As a fungus, mold is in soil and spreads to new locations by releasing spores into the air. It can travel through an open window or follow you inside through the front door.

But mold only becomes dangerous when it is able to attach itself to organic material and grow and spread with the right humid conditions, explains Joe Cascone, owner of Mold Pro Chicago, a mold prevention and removal company.

“Moisture allows the mold that’s already there to grow and colonize, and reproduce and spread,” Cascone says.

People’s reactions to mold vary depending on individual predispositions to mold and the type of mold growth, from no symptoms to sore throat and itchy eyes, heightened asthma problems, skin rashes and in some cases autoimmune disease from prolonged exposure. Because medical issues can vary so greatly, it doesn’t matter which type of mold may be growing or how you’re feeling, all visible mold growth in your home should be removed and the source of moisture repaired to ensure growth does not occur again.

“Health effects are the first reasons to rid a building of mold. The second reason is the resale value and marketability of a property,” Cascone says. “Nobody wants to purchase a seller’s mold issue.”

Whether you’ve lived there for decades or you haven’t even closed on the place yet, evidence of mold can trigger dozens of questions. To avoid getting lost in the details, ask a few simple questions to help you get to the root of the cause, figure out how to fix the problem and how to move forward.

What’s causing the mold to grow? It could be a leaky pipe, humid basement or a hurricane that flooded your entire first floor. The size of the problem is less important than your ability to repair the source of moisture. “It’s imperative to stop further moisture intrusion,” Cascone says. Otherwise, the mold will just grow back.

Mold growth in a basement, attic or crawl space is relatively common, Cascone says, because residents don’t see these areas often, and they can be very humid.

Mold’s potentially harmful qualities weren’t always a major concern. Larry Wasson, a certified home inspector and owner of Affiliated Inspectors in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says he wouldn’t be surprised to go into crawl spaces covered in mold as recently as 20 years ago.

“It wasn’t until at some point this medical research data hit the news” that mold could cause serious health problems, in addition to allergic reactions and heightened asthma symptoms, Wasson says.

An understanding of how mold grows in the home and the potential for adverse health effects has since changed the way people look at fungus, even if it’s not causing you problems, you have to kill growing mold and reduce moisture levels to prevent its return.

Bigger disasters, such as hurricanes or a pipe burst, will likely require major remediation efforts, since surfaces exposed to moisture aren’t isolated. A flooded basement, for example, could see widespread mold growth.

Who should you talk to about it? To ensure you address any evidence of mold growth appropriately, it’s best to talk to a professional who specializes in inspecting homes and checking for mold – and be sure they’re an impartial source.

Charles Gallagher, an attorney specializing in toxic mold litigation in St. Petersburg, Florida, recommends selecting two separate companies to perform the inspection and remediation to ensure impartiality, and even more important, to make certain the inspection has merit.

“You want to make sure that you have two different sets of folks involved, as opposed to one person coming out who is a drive-by repair, handyman kind of service who doesn’t understand the scientific aspect of it,” Gallagher says.

If you haven’t yet closed on a home and you find mold, it’s typically a good idea to hire your own professional to assess the situation to avoid having the wool pulled over your eyes by a desperate seller.

Some things to look out for: Phrases like “mildew” and “mold-like substance” are misleading. Mold and mildew are both fungi, and they can cause health problems. Wasson says that if it looks like mold or is described as a mold-like substance, consider it mold and have it removed.

“Nobody differentiates between mold and mildew – they both are just as risky as the other,” Wasson says.

How do you get rid of it? The spectrum of mold growth removal can range from a simple at-home cleaning to a heavy-duty remediation process that requires residents leave until conditions are safe enough to inhabit the home again. For spaces that are just a little too humid, a dehumidifier that’s the right size will help to keep moisture levels in the air below 50 percent, which is the threshold for many types of mold to grow.

When Cascone inspects a home that doesn’t need remediation, he typically recommends mold-killing products that can be found at a local home improvement stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s.

But contrary to popular belief, bleach is not an effective remedy. “It will just keep coming back, especially if it’s growing on the paper on the drywall,” Cascone says. Sprays specifically designed to kill mold are more effective, and mold-killing primer can be used to seal the surface once the mold is removed. While simple at-home fixes and smaller remediation processes are typically resolved quickly, larger mold problems could take a few days to completely mitigate.

In the case of mold from leaks and water damage, you need to not only repair the source of water, but also remove affected surfaces, kill any fungi and treat anything you cannot remove, like a painted concrete wall in your basement, to prevent mold growth from returning.

Another way to reduce the chances of mold returning to the area is to get rid of its food source, and Cascone says one option is to ditch regular drywall for fiberglass drywall. “Fiberglass is not consumable; it’s not edible for mold. Fungus only eats or consumes carbon-based materials or organic materials that used to be alive,” he says.

How do you make a deal when there’s mold? Any kind of major defect can break a deal or have a big impact on negotiations when buying a home, and mold is no exception.

“Mold is without question one of the most prevalent risks you can come up [against when] buying and owning a house,” Wasson says.

It’s not worth risking the potential health issues, and mold will simply continue to devalue your property until the problem becomes so rampant that the home is uninhabitable. “Nobody wants to purchase a seller’s mold issue,” Cascone says, adding that, “Attic mold almost never affects the indoor air quality in the living space, but it sure threatens real estate deals.”

Regardless of whether you’re on the buying or selling end of the transaction, be sure you understand the laws about informing a purchasing party about home defects. “The law in Florida and in most states, generally, is that you have to disclose all known risks,” which includes evidence of mold in the home, Gallagher says. Providing the details of a previous inspection, mold lab test results or even simply stating that stains on a wall might be mold could be considered sufficient disclosure. More here.

6 tips when buying a new home

Buying a new house brings up different issues than buying a pre-owned home. You have access to more information on the building materials and systems than a subsequent buyer. But unknowns lurk: What will the completed neighborhood look like? Will it include all the features promised in the brochure?

Bottom line: Buyers need to research a different set of questions before making an offer on a new house.

If you’re vowing “out with the old and in with the new” as you shop for a home, here are six tips to help you make a smart buy.

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