Firm advice: Consider both agent and brokerage

If you’re thinking of buying or selling, chances are you’ll select your real estate agent based upon a name referred from a friend, neighbor or relative.

Referrals are the No. 1 way both first-time and repeat buyers and sellers settle on an agent, according to surveys from the National Association of Realtors.

But when a specific agent is recommended, should the name of the realty firm he’s affiliated with also matter?

Probably, say many agents.

The agent who worked out well for a trusted friend or relative may likely be associated with a new firm now. In a 2015 survey of its members, the NAR found that 30 percent were with their present firm for one year or less, compared to 18 percent in 2014.

Some newly affiliated are brand new to the profession, but doubtless many have switched firms, acknowledges Maggie Kasperski, a spokeswoman for the NAR.

“One thing sellers should ask about is whether the brokerage has a strong web presence so that their home is easy to find,” advises Angie Lotz, of RE/MAX All Pro in Bloomingdale, Ill., noting that many buyers shop the Internet vigorously.

Firms will differ in their offerings of search technology, too. For instance, buyers glued to their smartphone should put a priority on whether an app is available giving “real-time information,” says Cindy Soderstrom of RE/MAX Signature Homes in Hinsdale, Ill. Also, the commission charged a seller can be influenced by a brokerage’s policy, adds Erika Villegas, broker-associate with ERA Mi Casa in Chicago.

Judge independent and national Realty firms equally, advises Marina Krakovsky, author of “The Middleman Economy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), noting that what’s important is the firm’s local reputation.

— Marilyn Kennedy Melia
© CTW Features

Things to consider before downsizing your home

The decision to downsize a home is often bittersweet. Many couples who downsize their homes do so after raising a family. A home might be filled with memories, but downsizing a home helps couples save more money, and that financial flexibility often allows men and women to more fully enjoy their retirement.

But in spite of the financial impact of downsizing a home, there’s more than just money at stake for homeowners thinking of downsizing their homes. The following are a handful of factors homeowners should consider before downsizing to a smaller home.

Real estate market

The real estate market can be a seller’s friend or foe. Many sellers have a sale price in mind when they decide to sell their home, but the real estate market can be fickle, so homeowners should do their research before putting their home up for sale. Will the current market make it easier for you to get the most for your home, or will you have to settle for less than you prefer? How fast are similar homes in your area selling? When studying the real estate market, it’s also a good idea to study the market for smaller homes. If you plan on moving into a condominium but the market is not flush with properties, you might end up paying more than you want to for your new home, which might negate the savings you can expect from downsizing.

Furniture

When downsizing to a smaller home, many couples realize their current furniture is unlikely to fit into a smaller home. That means couples will have to sell or donate their current furniture and then buy all new items for their new home. If it’s been a while since you purchased new furniture, you might be in for some sticker shock on your first visit to the furniture store.

Another thing to consider regarding your furniture is which items you simply can’t live without. An antique dinner table might have been the centerpiece for your family holidays over the last several decades, but there’s no guarantee it will fit into your smaller home. You may want to pass this down to your son or daughter, but that’s only possible if he or she has the room for it. Before deciding to downsize, consider your attachment to certain items that you may or may not be able to take with you to your new home and the emotional toll that selling such items might take if you’re left with no other options.

Proximity to family

When downsizing to a smaller home, many couples move out of the suburbs and into cities or towns with more ready access to culture and restaurants. While that accessibility is great, grandparents may find that it comes at the cost of less time with their grandchildren. That’s a steep price to pay for doting grandparents, and it may also impact your children if they frequently rely on grandma and grandpa for babysitting. Before downsizing, consider if you’re willing to move further away from your family. If not, you likely can still find a smaller home in close proximity to your current home and any nearby family members.

Medical care

Many older men and women must also consider the effect that moving may have on their medical care. Downsizing to a home in the country may make it harder to maintain contact with your current physician, and rural areas typically have less medical practitioners than more densely populated towns and cities. In addition, if you have been visiting the same physician for years, you may not want to move and have to start all over again with a physician who is unfamiliar with your medical history. Consider how much maintaining your existing relationship with your physician means to you, and if your next home will provide the kind of access to medical care you’re likely to need.

Downsizing a home is not just about moving into a smaller property. To ensure you’re making the right decision, many factors must be considered before downsizing.

Automakers accelerating on auto-braking

By Jim Gorzelany
CTW Features

 Your next car could apply the brakes on its own to help avoid a collision Your next car could apply the brakes on its own to help avoid a collision Perhaps as the first step toward driverless cars, expect advanced safety systems that can help drivers avoid, or at least lessen the effects of a crash to become widespread in the not-too-distant future.

Ten automakers recently committed to making the potentially life saving systems standard in all their vehicles sold in the U.S., presumably over the next few model years. They include Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes- Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Together, these companies were responsible for 57 percent of U.S. light-duty vehicle sales in 2014.

Other automakers could follow suit, and has been the case with important safety features like antilock brakes and electronic stability control, there’s a possibility frontal crash protection could one day be mandated for use in all cars by the federal government.

Until recently limited to the luxury car segment, frontal crashavoidance systems are fast becoming prevalent among more affordable cars and crossovers, though they’re usually offered only on costlier versions within a given car line, and are often bundled with other features in expensive options packages.

A forward collision warning/prevention system uses radar, cameras or lasers to monitor the distance between a vehicle and the traffic or other obstructions in its path. The same hardware is also used in a vehicle’s adaptive cruise control system that maintains both a set speed and distance from the traffic ahead. Basic systems will engage visual and audible alerts if it determines the car is closing in at a potentially hazardous rate of speed and pre-charge the brakes to maximize their stopping power. A full-blown collision avoidance system will go a step further and automatically apply the brakes at full force if the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough.

Most such systems operate at higher speeds with the intent of saving lives, though a few models, specifically those from Volvo and Mazda, are also selling separate auto-braking systems that operate at slower speeds to avoid fender benders in stop-and-go traffic. A few Infiniti models further offer lowspeed systems that will automatically apply the brakes while backing up to avoid hitting pedestrians and other vehicles.

According to a report conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., autobraking technology can reduce insurance injury claims by as much as 35 percent. “The evidence is mounting that AEB is making a difference,” says IIHS’ president Adrian Lund. “Most crashes involve driver error. This technology can compensate for the mistakes every driver makes because the systems are always on alert, monitoring the road ahead and never getting tired or distracted.”

In order for a vehicle to earn IIHS’s highest Top Safety Pick+ designation, it must offer an automatic braking system in one or more of its versions. Vehicles earning a “superior” rating are able to successfully avoid a crash or substantially reduce a vehicle’s speed in tests conducted at 12 and 25 mph. To garner an “advanced” rating a vehicle must include an autobraking function and be able to avoid a crash or reduce speeds by at least 5 mph in either of the two tests. Forward collision warning systems that meet performance criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and autobrake systems that provide only minimal speed reduction in IIHS tests earn a “basic” rating.

As of this writing, the IIHS has given a record number of models a “superior” rating for forward crash avoidance when properly equipped, including the 2016 Acura ILX, MDX, RDX and RLX; 2016 BMW X3; 2015 Chrysler 300 and its twin, the 2015 Dodge Charger; 2016 Honda Accord Coupe and Sedan, 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, CLA and E-Class; and the 2016 Mazda 6 and CX-5. The 2016 Volkswagen Golf, Golf SportWagen, Jetta and 2015 Volkswagen Touareg are deemed “advanced” for front crash prevention.

© CTW Features

Unequal DUI laws

Q&A with Sharon Peters

Q: My nephew has been picked up for driving impaired at least four times. Very little in the way of punishment ever happens. And still he drives. In my part of the country, he would have lost his license years ago, and probably would have done time. He lives in Pennsylvania. Is that known as a state that does nothing about DUI?

A: You are correct in supposing that law enforcement/ courts can treat such individuals very differently from state to state. Pennsylvania is among the 10 most lenient states (ranking number 49 out of the 50 states and District of Columbia) when it comes to how strictly DUIs are approached, according to WalletHub, which did a recent analysis of DUI enforcement rules across the country. The group examined 15 metrics, including minimum jail sentences to ignition interlock devices (which are regarded by many as a highly effective deterrent to keeping drivers who have driven drunk or stoned in the past from repeating that behavior).

Any number of approaches could be used, of course, to assess how harsh or lenient the laws relating to DUI are written … and, especially, applied. This methodology may or may not lock in on all that contributes to whether a state is a crackdown state or a soft one.

MADD, using different methodology, also put together a list of the 14 most lenient states. Pennsylvania was on that group’s list, too.

All this seems to confirm your suspicions.

Readers comment: Several terrific readers got in touch with me after a recent column in which I answered a question about gas caps not consistently being on the same side of cars, and that can lead to confusion at the pumps when one is driving a rental car or the vehicle of a spouse or someone else. “I agree with all you wrote,” one reader commented, “that it would be easier if you could count on them being on one side or the other. You should have pointed out, though, as I remember you did several months ago, that in most vehicles there is a symbol on the gas gauge that indicates which side the gas cap is on.” Indeed I should have. I always appreciate the reminders!

© CTW Features

What’s your question? Sharon Peters would like to hear about what’s on your mind when it comes to caring for, driving and repairing your vehicle. Email Sharon@ctwfeatures.com.

Coldwell Banker reports ranks most expensive, most affordable markets in New Jersey

Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC has released its 2015 Home Listing Report (HLR), which ranks the affordability of 188 real estate markets in New Jersey. The Coldwell Banker HLR named Chatham Township the most expensive market in New Jersey, with an average listing price of $882,260, while Willingboro ranked as the most affordable market in the state, with an average listing price of $134,853.

The annual report is the most extensive home price comparison tool currently available in the United States, ranking the average listing price of four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes in more than 2,700 markets. While other affordability reports provide average or median prices for all homes in a given area, the Coldwell Banker HLR analyzes more than 81,000 four-bedroom, two-bathroom home listings to better address how much a home in one market would cost if the same home were located somewhere else in the country.

“The Coldwell Banker Home Listing Report illustrates the wide variety of housing options available in New Jersey. Whether you want to live on the outskirts of Manhattan, in the scenic Appalachian and Highlands regions, or along the beautiful New Jersey shoreline, this state offers just about any lifestyle you desire. The HLR is an excellent resource for potential home buyers who want to compare home prices in New Jersey and across the United States,” said Hal Maxwell, president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in New Jersey and Rockland County, N.Y.

The Top 10 Most Expensive Real Estate Markets in N.J. by Average Listing Price

1. Chatham Township, $882,260

2. Madison Borough, $847,494

3. Bernards Township, $816,920

4. Westfield Town/Westfield, $788,976

5. New Providence Borough, $727,242

6. Glen Rock, $725,162

7. Holmdel, $712,088

8. Princeton Junction/West Windsor, $711,442

9. Englewood/Englewood Cliffs, $705,375

10. Ridgewood, $682,495

The Top 10 Most Affordable Real Estate Markets in N.J.

1. Willingboro, $134,853

2. East Orange, $150,107

3. Newark, $159,448

4. Bridgeton, $162,310

5. Roselle, $182,229

6. Atco, $182,369

7. Woodbury/Woodbury Heights, $185,120

8. Paterson, $190,622

9. Clayton, $200,100

10. Millville, $200,865

According to the HLR, half of the top 100 most expensive markets in the United States are in California; Newport Beach topped the list with an average listing price of $2,291,764 for a four-bedroom, two-bathroom home. In contrast, Cleveland ranked as the most affordable market in the Unites States for the third consecutive year, with an average listing price of $74,502 for a four-bedroom, two-bathroom home. There is a difference of $2.2 million between the nation’s most affordable and most expensive average listing price, according to the HLR.

Full data for the United States, including affordability rankings of local markets in New Jersey, is available on the Coldwell Banker Home Listing Report website at hlr.coldwellbanker.com.

About the 2015 U.S. Home Listing Report (Methodology):

The Coldwell Banker U.S. Home Listing Report analyzes the average listing price of four-bedroom, two-bathroom real estate properties on coldwellbanker.com between December 2014 and June 2015 for 81,417 listings in 2,722 markets. The Coldwell Banker franchised affiliates, as well as other franchise brands associated with Realogy Holdings Corp, contribute to listings on coldwellbanker.com. Markets without at least 10 four-bedroom, twobathroom listings on coldwellbanker.com between December 2014 and June 2015 were excluded from the ranking.

About Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in New Jersey and Rockland County, N.Y.:

Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in New Jersey and Rockland County, N.Y., a leading residential real estate brokerage company, operates approximately 50 offices with more than 3,100 affiliated sales associates serving all communities from Rockland County, N.Y. to Monmouth County. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in New Jersey and Rockland County, N.Y. is part of NRT LLC, the nation’s largest residential real estate brokerage company. Visit https://www.ColdwellBankerHomes.com/tri -states for more information.

A dim view of the road ahead

Today’s automotive car headlamps don’t do an adequate job of illuminating poorly lit nighttime rural roads, which accounts for 40 percent of all miles driven in the United States.

That’s according to research conducted by AAA in Orlando, Fla. The organization found that halogen headlamps, currently included in more than 80 percent of new vehicles, may fail to safely light the way on otherwise unlit roadways at speeds as sedate as 40 mph. Specifically, they don’t allow a driver enough opportunity to detect an object, pedestrian or animal down the road, react and come to a complete stop in time to avoid a collision.

Not as widely available and usually offered at an extra cost, the AAA found LED and high-intensity headlamps to illuminate dark roadways 25 percent better than halogen lights, though they still fall short at speeds over 45 mph. Choosing the high beam setting on these types of headlamps offered significant improvement, however, stretching visibility to as much as 500 feet on otherwise dark roads.

— Jim Gorzelany
© CTW Features

Keyport dealership among the first Ford dealers in the nation to sell new F-150

A Monmouth County dealership is among the first Ford dealers in the country to sell a 2016 F-150 truck.

Joe Jarock Jr., an auto body shop employee and street rod enthusiast, purchased a new 2016 F-150 XLT from Tom’s Ford in Keyport. An employee of Al’s Auto Body in South Amboy for nearly four decades, Jarock has driven Fords his whole life. As someone who says he simply “likes driving trucks,” Jarock is a big fan of the new F-150, which replaced his 1999 F-250. Jarock and his wife use the new truck as a daily driver, enjoying the vehicle’s innovative features, particularly the remote start option.

With a range of high-end features, the new F-150 is making waves in the automotive world for its high-strength aluminum alloy body, which shaves 700 pounds off the total weight of truck and makes the truck more fuel efficient. The EPA-estimated ratings of 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined are 5 percent to 29 percent better than previous F-150 models, due in part to the aluminum body.

Serving customers from Sayreville, Matawan, South Amboy, Red Bank, Middletown and beyond, Tom’s Ford has been in business since 1962. With a large inventory of both new and pre-owned vehicles, Tom’s Ford also provides top-quality regular automotive maintenance and commercial and diesel repairs.

Tom’s Ford is located at 200 Route 35 in Keyport. For more information, call 732-264-1600.

Paying steady with unsteady income

 Lenders put increased scrutiny on borrowers with fluctuating incomes Lenders put increased scrutiny on borrowers with fluctuating incomes Fifth-grade math skills come in handy when you’re home shopping. Lenders usually don’t want to see a monthly mortgage payment — plus all other regularly occurring debts — exceed more than about 36 to 43 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income.

No matter how adept they are converting ratios into percentages, however, many mortgage seekers will find this equation difficult because they can’t pin down a monthly income number. A recent study by J.P. Morgan Chase Institute, a nonprofit arm of the banking firm, found that 41 percent of individuals experience monthly income fluctuations of more than 30 percent.

Irregular work schedules and other changes in employment patterns cause pay variability, posing a budget problem.

Indeed, the JPMCI report reads: “Individuals need to appreciate the degree to which income and consumption are volatile, and to prepare for the possibility that they might — unexpectedly or outside of their control — experience a negative swing in income.”

Income swings concern mortgage lenders, who will apply added scrutiny to loan applicants with variable pay stubs.

But “fluctuating income is not usually a problem as long as we can document why it is fluctuating and establish a history that makes sense,” notes Neil Caron, vice president at Freedom Mortgage Corp. in South Windsor, Conn.

An income history helps put monthly fluctuations in context. For instance, a server at a high-end restaurant who’s been on the job five years but whose annual income dropped 10 percent last year may be required to submit a letter of explanation, says Caron. And, if income has declined for two years, the lender will use the lower figure.

A consistent annual pattern of monthly fluctuations gives lenders comfort.

Still, lenders are “looking for borrowers they can trust,” notes Grace Currid, senior vice president, HomeBridge Financial Services in New York. Trust is demonstrated with a good credit score, which comes from paying bills promptly.

— Marilyn Kennedy Melia
© CTW Features

Nine things to remember when shopping for a home

By Lindsey Romain
CTW Features

 Before you fall in love with that potential new house, do a reality check by keeping these points in mind Before you fall in love with that potential new house, do a reality check by keeping these points in mind It’s easy to get swept away in the romance of a new home — those tall ceilings, that spacious backyard, all the great amenities that are nearby. Eager young buyers are especially vulnerable. The mindful first-time homebuyer will keep an eye on the little practicalities that many first-timers ignore. Here are nine points to keep in mind before buying your first dream home.

1. The home is designed to attract you.

Sellers spruce up a house before putting it on the market, staging it with attractive furniture and accessories, baking cookies and lighting candles to scent the rooms with a pleasant aroma. What seems like a nice detail could be covering up a problem, such as stinky plumbing or musty odors.

“Go back to the house at another time and request that there be no olfactory or auditory enhancements,” says Suzanne Whang, former host of HGTV’s “House Hunters” and author of “Suzanne Whang’s Guide to Happy Home Buying” (HGTV, 2006).

2. Empty rooms only seem bigger.

During a walkthrough, think about your own possessions and how they will fill the space. Ignore the furnishings that are there — or not there.

“If the house is empty, remember that furniture will make each room feel smaller,” Whang says.

3. Track the appliances.

Make sure the contract honors the appliances that will come with the house. And make sure it’s specific.

“Do not just say ‘washer and dryer.’” says Diana Brodman Summers, an attorney and author of “How to Buy Your First Home” (Sphinx Publishing, 2005). “Say ‘Maytag Model 800 washer and dryer.’ That way the seller cannot substitute an old washer and dryer for the one in place when the deal was made.”

Brodman Summers advises doing a walk-through of the home the night before closing to ensure that all items in the contract are still there and in the same condition.

4. Face it: You’ll have to fix stuff.

New homes rarely arrive in pristine condition. Be sure to allot some of your budget for repairs, big and small. A prepurchase home inspection will offer insight into what projects might need to be done. Your agent will highlight potential fixes, too.

5. The house will look different throughout the day.

Visit the house and surrounding area at different times during the day and at night.

“You’ll want to experience the levels of sunlight and shade in all of the rooms,” says Whang, who suggests walking around the neighborhood at different times to see how safe you feel.

6. Gauge the neighbors’ happiness.

The best way to know if a neighborhood lives up to the asking price of a property is to get a feel from the folks who live nearby. Chat up neighbors to see if they’re comfortable with the area and have had good experiences. It’s a good idea to meet people in the area or in your building; you’ll want to be sure you’ll be comfortable living next door to them.

7. Good schools come with a price.

Have kids? Want kids? A strong school district might influence a purchasing decision, but be aware that a good school means a higher price tag. What makes a school district “good?”

“A person may want to research the school district online,” suggests Brodman Summers. “See if it has made the news; look at the demographics of the families in that area; look at school board meeting minutes and the graduation rate.”

8. Your monthly expenses may go up.

According to Brodman Summers, the monthly mortgage cost on a home often is higher than a new homeowner expects, due to insurance and taxes, which have the potential to increase. She suggests making a detailed budget and staying conscious of the fact that certain expenses will fluctuate.

9. A little courtesy goes a long way.

“If you really love a house, write a personal letter to the owners,” Whang says. “It could make the difference between your offer and a comparable dollar amount from another buyer.”

Whang notes that many sellers don’t want to sell a family home to buyers who will tear it down or make major renovations, so if your plan is to keep the integrity of the structure, let them know. A little bit of home loving can go a long way to making the best decision.

© CTW Features

REAL ESTATE BRIEFS

Carlo Siracusa, regional vice president of Weichert, Realtors, announced that sales associate Thomas Connors of the Holmdel office was recognized for his exceptional industry success during the month of November. Connors led the region, which is comprised of locations throughout Ocean and Monmouth counties, in resale dollar volume. He can be reached in Weichert’s Holmdel office located at 43 E. Main St., or call 732-946-9400 for more information.

Carlo Siracusa, regional vice president of Weichert, Realtors, announced that sales associate

Eva Acevedo of the Middletown office was recognized for her exceptional performance in November. Acevedo led the region, which is comprised of locations throughout Ocean and Monmouth counties, in new home dollar volume for the month. She can be reached in Weichert’s Middletown office at 1008 Route 35, or call 732- 671-8000 for more information.

Jack Waters, regional vice president of Weichert, Realtors, announced that the Old Bridge office was recognized for outstanding performance in November. The office led the region, which is comprised of locations throughout Middlesex County, in new home dollar volume, resale listings, resale revenue units and resale dollar volume. Additionally, sales associates John Horvath and Ranbir Singh of the Old Bridge office were recognized for their exceptional industry success. As top producers in November, Horvath led the region in resale revenue units and resale dollar volume, while Singh was recognized for new home dollar volume. They can be reached at Weichert’s Old Bridge office at 1394 Route 9 south, or call 732-525-1550 for more information.