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AOL Real Estate - Blog
AOL Real Estate - Blog

California's Hot 5: The Fastest-Moving Housing Markets

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Map of tourist attractions in California
Gustav Dejert/Getty
Be prepared for a race to the finish if you're looking to buy in California these days.

As they did in the Gold Rush of 1849, Americans are racing westward in 2015. Trulia's Housing Economist Ralph McLaughlin noted that five of the 10 fastest-moving real estate markets this year are located in the Golden State, while sales have slowed in such eastern states as New York, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

It looks like 2015 is seeing its next Gold Rush, but this time, it's with homes -- and they're selling incredibly fast. In fact, less than 30% of homes for sale in three San Francisco Bay Area metros remained on the market after two months.

Why are people racing to buy in California? Well, each one of the cities on this list has its own charm. Let's see what you can buy in the Golden State's hottest markets.

1. San Francisco

You almost have to ask what the City by the Bay doesn't have. Great food, great sights like the Golden Gate Bridge and Park, and lots of business opportunities. And with the average home selling for more than $1 million, the real estate market in San Francisco is just as fast-paced as its tech innovations.

So what can you get for $549,000 (roughly the midpoint of the median)? You could vie for this one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo in the Castro or this teeny, tiny 678-square-foot home in Mission Terrace. Either way, come prepared to battle it out with dozens of other buyers.

2. San Jose

Tech companies and their employees clearly know the way to San Jose, nicknamed the "Capital of Silicon Valley." The third-largest city in California, San Jose reached the 1 million population milestone last year and shows no signs of slowing.

This is home to the headquarters of a number of huge tech companies (Cisco Systems, Adobe Systems, PayPal, eBay, and so many more) and buyers are scooping up newly built condos, roomy Victorian single-family homes, and everything in between. If you can pony up the median asking price of $800,000, you can look forward to harvesting lemons from the mature fruit trees and hosting some epic barbecues in the backyard of this 1960s ranch-style home.

3. Oakland

Across the bay from San Francisco lies Oakland, a city with a rough reputation -- Anna Bloom of the New York Times described growing up there as "a mix of growth, grit, and crime."

But things are changing as newcomers and businesses are beginning to take advantage of Oakland's proximity to San Francisco, according to Fortune magazine. With homes half the price of those across the bay, more buyers could afford this tidily renovated Montclair cottage (listed at $599,000).

4. San Diego

Almost any native of this city will give you the following advice: "Get a California burrito and carne asada fries. You'll thank me later." San Diego can boast the Gaslamp Quarter, beautiful Coronado Island, Comic-Con International -- and the fact that it was home to Will Ferrell's "Anchorman" movies.

Earlier this year, San Diego was ranked the second-most-expensive city to buy a house in, making it a seller's market. (And buyers are digging it.) Live the dream in this cozy 560-square-foot Mission Beach cottage. It'll cost you, though -- it's listed at $559,000, well within the average for this sunny city.

5. Orange County

Widely known as "The OC" (even off TV), Los Angeles' suburban neighbor is experiencing a big economic upswing. Last month, The Orange County Register's Jonathan Lansner reported that local businesses are booming and the amount of money spent on cars is at a seven-year high.

Orange County is home to such affluent beach communities as Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, as well as Disneyland over in Anaheim. Chapman University and the University of California at Irvine also call The OC home. All those California vibes don't come cheap -- if you want to soak up the coastal views in a cliffside home like this one, be prepared to fork over a cool $18 million.

 

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Inside Tommy Hilfiger's $75 Million Manhattan Penthouse

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Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Zillow
Tommy Hilfiger took three years to renovate his two-story, 6,000-square-foot penthouse at New York's famed Plaza Hotel. It is taking him about as long to sell it. The American fashion tycoon has dropped the price of the four-bedroom duplex to $75 million, the Real Deal reported.

Hilfiger listed the penthouse in 2013 for $80 million just before he married his second wife, Dee Ocleppo. Before another round of renovations, Hilfiger once had it on the market for $50 million, according to Curbed. Hilfiger purchased the classic unit and a neighboring unit for $25 million in 2008 when it was marketed as a "fixer-upper," reported AOL Real Estate.

Hilfiger says he likes that this residence is in an iconic building on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park. "I always wanted to acquire trophy real estate because location, location, location is very important. As an investment you can't do better than that," he says in a CNNMoney video.

The condo, on the 18th and 19th floors, has views of Central Park and Fifth Avenue from a private terrace. The Plaza is a fully staffed 24-hour white-glove condominium with a separate entrance from the hotel, according to the listing. Residents are offered the full complement of hotel services, including maid, valet and Todd English room service.

"Only the most luxurious finishes and materials were used to restore this property to its original grandeur, complete with 21st Century conveniences," according to the listing.

A round, domed room in a turret contains a custom mural paying homage to Eloise, a character from Kay Thompson's 1950s books about a girl who lives in the "room on the tippy-top floor" of the Plaza Hotel.

"If you surround yourself with things you love, it makes for a great home design," Hilfiger told CNN.

Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Zillow
Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Zillow
Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Zillow
Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Zillow

 

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How to Get Rid of Unhealthy Black Mold

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fungus on corner of the wall XXXL
Greg801/GettyThe disgusting stuff on your wall could be mold, black mold or mildew. Figuring that out is the first step in getting rid of it.

Removing black mold from your home can sound like a daunting task. Just the term "black mold" sounds scary enough. If you're willing to buy the proper safety equipment and can stomach scrubbing and removing mold damage for up to a few weeks, you can save hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars.

Deciding when to call in a professional is a personal decision, but there are two signs that black mold has progressed too far to easily remove it yourself, says David Olson of PuroClean, a property damage restoration company.

"When the odor is becoming so bad that it's giving them a headache," or a finger can be pushed through drywall damaged by black mold, Olson says.

Removal is charged by the square foot and varies by where you live, he says. Removing mold from and repairing a standard shower can cost from $1,600 to $4,500, Olson says.

To avoid such costs, here are some ways to remove black mold in your home on your own:

1. Determine What it Is

The musty smell under a sink may not be black mold -- which is a mold that has been left for quite awhile -- and may just be simple mold, Olson says. The difference is that mold is a live spore, while black mold could be toxic. Mildew, for example, is often confused with being mold, but it can be easily cleaned with bleach or other surface cleaners.

Not all visible molds that are black are dangerous, and mold testing may be needed to confirm if toxic spores are in your house, according to the website BlackMoldRemoval.com.

Homeowners should test their homes every three to five years for potential mold problems, says Caroline Blazovsky, a healthy home expert.

"Not all mold problems are visible," Blazovsky says. "Sometimes, you get lucky and see mold growing on areas like basement walls or bathroom walls to know there is a problem. But, many times mold is in between walls behind showers, underneath flooring and under kitchen appliances -- places we cannot get to."

She recommends doing a mold air test with a professional air pump sampler, either with a certified inspector or a DIY kit.

2. Find the Source and Stop the Damage

If you see or smell black mold in your house, it's probably in an area of high moisture, such as a bathroom that isn't vented well enough, or from a water leak such as a leaking pipe. Repair the leak before deciding if you're going to repair the damage yourself.

Once moisture from water damage or condensation has been provided, mold will use a food source such as insulation, fabric, drywall or carpet to grow and cause damage.

3. Get an Inspection

Hiring a professional to determine the amount of damage can be the safest way to figure out how much black mold is in your home and help you understand how to fix it. An industrial hygienist can test rooms other than where the mold was found to determine if it has grown to other areas.

If you decide to go with a professional mold removal company, their experts will tell you what steps to take next, such as possibly leaving the house while they do their work. To protect your family's health, a professional mold removal company is the best way to go. If you decide to do the work yourself, continue the following steps.

4. Wear Protective Gear

According to BlackMoldRemoval.com, you'll need to start by buying mold removal gear to protect yourself from airborne mold spores. Use an N-95 respirator, available online or at a local hardware store for from $20 to $50. You'll also need gloves, goggles, long-sleeved shirts and pants. Everyone else should leave the house during cleanup.

5. Seal Affected Areas

Water damaged rooms and rooms with potential mold growth should be sealed with heavy-duty plastic sheets to contain airborne spores. Force mold spores out windows with negative pressure from an exhaust fan.

6. Discard Water-Damaged Material

After the water damage has been contained, allow the area to dry for up to 48 hours. Porous materials such as carpet, drywall and fabric may retain moisture. Toss water-damaged materials that show signs of mold growth.

7. Scrub Away

Visible mold can be scrubbed off hard surface with water and detergent. Then allow the surfaces to dry thoroughly. If mold has dried, lightly spray the area with water before cleaning to prevent the release of airborne spores.

Commercial mold removal products can be used, but the EPA discourages using chlorine bleach to remove mold. Natural mold removal agents include hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, tea tree oil, and baking soda.

There are a lot of misconceptions about how to get rid of and prevent mold, with one of the most popular being that bleach is best, says Pete Duncanson, a mold remediation expert at ServiceMaster Restore. Bleach has a reputation of killing mold and everything else, but it doesn't because the mold doesn't die. It only goes dormant, Duncanson says.

"Consumer products reduce discoloration and the appearance of mold," he says, "but the only way to truly get rid of mold is to cut it out of an area," or call in a professional to manage larger issues such as mold in an HVAC system.

8. Clean All Surfaces

To prevent mold from returning, clean all surfaces thoroughly to remove residual spores. Allow all surfaces to dry. Dry vacuum the room with a HEPA filter vacuum to remove embedded spores.

9. Toss Mold-Cleaning Equipment

Put anything that was used in the black mold cleanup in a heavy duty, sealed garbage bag. This should include clothing, sponges and other cleaning material.

When to call a professional? Olson's recommendation is when mold returns after you've made numerous attempts to clean it yourself. That's a clear sign that something you're doing isn't working.

 

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Where the Stars Spend the Night

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ZillowThis bedroom in the West Hollywood home of Harold Perrineau, star of "Lost," is appealing, but modest as L.A. goes.

By Melissa Allison

It's not often you can peer into the bedrooms of the rich and famous, but these homes for sale or rent are your chance.

Harold Perrineau


Zillow

Lost? Nope, he's just down the street. After buying a house nearby, Perrineau listed this Spanish-style compound that oozes old-time Hollywood charm and boasts a walk-in closet big enough for the family's wardrobe and its own, um, island. The listing agents are Josh and Matt Altman of Douglas Elliman.

Larry Ellison


Zillow

If the Winklevoss rental is out of your league, maybe this tech mogul's place will do. The Los Angeles Times reports that Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison is asking $65,000 a month for his Malibu cottage with ocean views, including from the bedroom. The rental agent is Beata Mandell of Executive Realty Group.

Liam Gallagher


Zillow

Check out these Wonderwalls! The Oasis frontman, who's reportedly getting the '90s pop band back together, has been trying to sell his Manhattan digs with the snazzy leopard-print bedroom for the better part of a year. The listing agents are Tal and Oren Alexander of Douglas Elliman.

Trent Reznor


Zillow

Not to be outdone, the frontman for Nine Inch Nails, a band that already staged a comeback, has listed his place in Beverly Hills, Trulia reported. It has a private balcony with show-stopping views of the city and is listed by Richard Stearns of Partners Trust.

Josh Hamilton


Zillow

And finally, it's the embattled baseball star's bedroom with the fireplace, the chandelier and the ocean view. The Dallas Morning News -- which recently reported the Los Angeles Angels player had filed for divorce around the time news of his substance-abuse relapse broke -- also reported the listing in the Newport Coast community in Orange County, California. (Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant also recently put a house on the market there.) The agent is Kevin Aaronson of The Aaronson Group.

 

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For Earth Day: 22 Shades of Green

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For Earth Day story by Sheri Koones. THIS USE ONLY
Courtesy of MandibuleThe Positive Energy ECOXIA House in Yerres, France, is a certified Passivhaus, built for sustainability and efficiency.

There are many options available for those who want to build a "green" house. The number of sustainable and energy-efficient options used in the construction is dependent on budget, taste and the level of desire to be independent of the grid and utilize sustainable practices.

Here is a checklist of things to consider when building or remodeling a home to be sustainable and energy efficient:

1. Insulation
First and foremost, use excellent insulation. Be sure there is adequate insulation, whether it is spray foam, cellulose, fiberglass, etc. The foundation, attic and exterior walls must all be properly insulated.

2. Air Sealing
Be sure to check for air infiltration. This can be done with a blower door test that will show where outside air is coming into the house. A tightly sealed home requires less heating and cooling.

3. Windows
Buy the best windows you can with your budget. Today there are many options in design, frame material, color and efficiency of windows. There are double and triple-pane windows, as well as gas-filled ones. Even frames can be insulated. Also, when designing a home, it is wise to have more windows on the south side of the house to take advantage of solar gain. Having fewer windows on the north side of the house prevents solar loss in those areas.

4. Appliances
Use ENERGY STAR-rated appliances. They consume far less energy than non-rated ones. That saves energy and dollars throughout the life of the appliance.

5. Non-toxic Materials
Make sure all stains, finishes, paints and adhesives are no-VOC or low-VOC. These toxins can continue to seep into the air and can cause illness and discomfort.

6. FSC-certified Wood
Using wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council helps provide healthy forests for future generations.

7. Passive Solar Orientation
Orient the house for optimal solar gain, if possible. This limits the need for artificial lighting and saves money on electricity, while also reducing energy costs.

8. Footprint
Limit the hallways in the house. Space should be used efficiently so there are fewer square feet to heat and cool. When a house is well designed, less space can still provide all the areas and functions desired.

9. Multi-functional Rooms
For example, a guest bedroom can easily work as an office or playroom when friends or family are not visiting.

Courtesy of Jim TetroThe 4D House built by Team Massachusetts for the Solar Decathlon has a partition wall that can be closed for privacy in the bedroom or opened to increase the entertaining area.
10. Flexible Rooms
Walls can sometimes be moved to open up space for entertaining, as seen in a house built by students at the University of Massachusetts for the Solar Decathlon, a competition staged by the U.S. Department of Energy.

11. Ventilation
To maintain a healthy indoor environment, a tightly built house requires adequate ventilation. Heat recovery ventilators and energy recovery ventilators are systems that continuously exchange the stale inside air with fresh outside air, while retaining the warmth or coolness already created in the house.

12. Low-flow Faucets and Showerheads and Dual-flush Toilets
Both of these substantially reduce the water being used in the house.

13. Recycled, Reused, and Reclaimed Materials
This limits our depletion of natural resources as well as the amount of material that goes into landfills. There are many types of recycled, reused and reclaimed materials -- including countertops made with recycled glass, reclaimed flooring and antique furnishings.

14. Lighting
LED and CFL lighting uses less energy than incandescent bulbs and the bulbs last much longer. The cost of these efficient bulbs is going down, and the variety of bulbs available has expanded.

15. Large Overhangs
Large overhangs around the house block the sun's heat in the summer months when the sun is high in the sky. In the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky (in the northern hemisphere), overhangs allow the sun to come in through the windows and help heat the house.

16. An Efficient Water Heater
Traditional water heaters maintain a tank full of warm water and are continuously using energy. Tankless water heaters heat water on demand.

17. Native Plant Landscaping
Using plants indigenous to the area limits the need for irrigation and fertilization.

18. Permeable Paving
Using paving materials that are permeable, such as gravel, allows rainwater and melted snow to return to the water table.

19. Solar Hot Water Panels
The cost of solar panels is coming down and there are subsidies available to reduce the cost further. Hot water panels can be used to heat the household's water or be used as part of a radiant heating system.

20. Photovoltaic Panels
PV panels can be used to reduce or eliminate the electric load. While connected to the grid, they can provide electricity when it is needed and receive electricity when the sun is not out. Extra electricity can also be returned to the grid to reduce electric costs.

21. Thermal Mass
Stone and other high-mass materials can be used to absorb energy when the sun beats down on them. That heat (or coolness) can later be released when it is needed. Some houses have stone around the periphery of the room where the sun is most likely to hit.

22. Heating System
A heating and cooling system that limits the energy consumed should be used. Heat pumps are becoming more popular in this country and quite popular around the world. They can be used successfully when the house is built with a very energy-efficient envelope.

 

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Mortgage Rates Slightly Down at 3.53% and Holding Steady

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ZillowThe weekly mortgage rate chart illustrates the average 30-year fixed interest rate in six-hour intervals.


By Lauren Braun

Mortgage rates for 30-year fixed loans fell this week, with the current rate borrowers were quoted on Zillow Mortgages at 3.53 percent, down 5 basis points from this time last week.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate fell early in the week, then hovered around 3.53 percent for the rest of the week.

"After dipping early last week on soft economic data, rates have been remarkably flat," said Erin Lantz, vice president of mortgages at Zillow. "This week we expect rates to remain largely unchanged with no big data releases or economic news on the horizon."

Additionally, the 15-year fixed rate Tuesday morning was 2.81 percent. For 5/1 ARMs, the rate was 2.73 percent.

Check Zillow Mortgages for rate trends and up-to-the-minute rates for your state, or use the mortgage calculator to calculate monthly payments at the current rates.

 

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12 Double-Duty Tips for Household Items

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rolls of toilet paper
Getty

We all have too much stuff and too little room. So our things must work harder for us. Here are surprising uses for 12 household items you already have. Click through the slideshow to learn creative ways to get more out of the things you already have.

 

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Whittier, Alaska: A Town Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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Whittier Alaska
ZillowThe Alaska town of Whittier features mountain views and spectacular wildlife. Condos are listed for $50,000 and less.
How would you like to live in a small seaside town with snow-capped mountain views, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city? The mayor is your neighbor, and so is the police chief. The people are friendly -- and when you live there, just about everybody knows your name.

In the Alaska town of Whittier, population 218, some are living such a "dream." And for a mere $49,500 for a two-bedroom condo, you could buy in to this life. A three-bedroom unit is $55,000.

The catch? Well, there's winter. Plus, most of the town's residents live under the same roof in a 14-story former military housing facility known as Begich Towers, reports NPR. The city government is housed on the main floor. So is the post office and a small grocery store, the Kozy Korner. There's a church in the basement. You rarely have to leave home if you don't want to. The school, serving elementary and secondary students, is even conveniently accessed through a pedestrian tunnel so the children can roll out of bed and get to school -- in short sleeves -- without ever having to go outside. That's especially convenient in the winter, when winds can get up to 60 mph and 250 inches of snow fall annually. The town's only playground is even indoors, reports the California Sunday Magazine.

If you do venture out, Anchorage is only an hour away. Get your fill on some finer dining or catch the latest flick, but don't stay out too late. The 2.5-mile, one-lane Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel you have to drive through to get back home to the west side of Prince William Sound closes at 10:30 p.m. for those entering Whittier, according to Alaska.org. If you're late, you just might have to sleep in your car or head back to the big city for a hotel stay. The tunnel doesn't open again for incoming traffic until 5:30 a.m. The single lane, supported above a working railroad track, is shared with outgoing traffic, alternating at 30-minute intervals.

If this serene life documented in a PBS video is not for you after all, maybe you'd still consider investing in a condo as rental property. Whittier is a major tourist attraction in the summer. With its 22 hours of daylight, more than 700,000 visitors come each year. "If you are a birder, come enjoy our world-class collection of raptors such as the bald eagle, the great gray owl and the elusive peregrine falcon," boasts Mayor Daniel Blair on the city's website. "During our glorious summer, we are often visited by humpback and orca whales [as well as] sea otters along with seals and sea lions."

Interested? The out-of-state owner of the three-bedroom unit already has a renter, according to the property listing by Keller Williams Realty Alaska Group. But the tenant gets a 30-day notice to vacate if you want the place just for yourself.

Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning, 20-year veteran journalist who has been writing for AOL Real Estate since 2009. Send her your tips & ideas. Follow her on Twitter at shereecurry.

 

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The Pure House

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Courtesy of The Pure HouseEnergy efficient homes can cost about 10% more to build, but can pay off dramatically in savings over time.
An optimistic view of housing in the future is that all homes will be built to require minimal energy to operate and to be healthy living environments. One example is the Pure House in Westport, Connecticut. Built using a prefabricated, high-efficiency panel system, it meets the criteria. Although the builders opted not to have the house certified, it follows the concepts and engineering requirements of the rigid Passive House standards, first developed in Germany.

The house is equipped with four zoned high-efficiency heat pumps, the main source of heating and cooling. People sometimes are skeptical that these heat pumps are sufficient for cold New England climates, but because the house was built with such a tight thermal envelope, a more elaborate heating and cooling system was not required. All insulation in the house is thicker than required by Connecticut building codes.

To minimize the need for electricity, the house is equipped with LED lights, which use far less energy, and Energy Star-rated appliances. The house even has a charging station for an electric car.

American-made products were used throughout the construction, including high-performance, triple-pane windows and doors, as well as sustainable materials such as EcoTimber, a type of engineered wood flooring. The materials sourced for the construction and interior design were chosen for their healthy, non-toxic composition. As an example, the kitchen and bathroom fixtures by Grohe are all lead-free. All the paint, stains, glues and other materials used in the construction are as non-toxic as possible, to maintain a healthy environment inside the house. A heat recovery ventilator exchanges the stale interior air with the outside fresh air continuously through the day and night. The landscape is designed for zero runoff and the native planting requires no irrigation system or fertilization.

"What I like most about building Pure Houses is the incredible air quality. Breathing fresh air all the time, that is what it's about" says Doug Mcdonald, founder of the Pure House‚Äč. Although, Mcdonald admits there is a small up-charge (approximately 10%) for building such an efficient house, he also conveys the long-term savings in energy costs. He says his houses use about 90% less energy than the conventional houses in the area.


Mcdonald says the Pure House "is born from the same model that brought you restaurants that serve 'farm-to-table' food and the reason why you shop at your local farmers market. You want to know that the ingredients are pure and natural and good for you."

 

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Mortgage Rates Inch Upward to 3.58%

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ZillowThe weekly mortgage rate chart illustrates the average 30-year fixed interest rate in six-hour intervals.

By Lauren Braun

Mortgage rates for 30-year fixed loans rose this week, with the current rate borrowers were quoted on Zillow Mortgages at 3.58 percent, up 3 basis points from this time last week.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate rose throughout the week before dipping to the current rate on Tuesday.

"Rates inched up last week as new data suggested the U.S. economy is on increasingly stable ground despite March's weak jobs report," said Erin Lantz, vice president of mortgages at Zillow. "Mortgage markets remain extremely sensitive to the ups and downs of economic news, but overall we expect the trend of gradually rising rates to continue this week."

Additionally, the 15-year fixed mortgage rate this morning was 2.87 percent. For 5/1 ARMs, the rate was 2.83 percent.

Check Zillow Mortgages for mortgage rate trends and up-to-the-minute mortgage rates for your state, or use the mortgage calculator to calculate monthly payments at the current rates.

 

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3 Things You Didn't Know About Government-Backed Loans

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Shutterstock
Conventional loans are the foundation of the mortgage industry. In a recent week, only about one in four prospective borrowers applied for a government-backed loan, according to survey data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs basically insure home loans made by participating lenders. These loans tend to have more lenient credit and underwriting requirements compared to conventional loans, which carry no government backing.

FHA and VA loans feature benefits that can be the right fit for the right buyer at the right time. To be sure, they also come with their own drawbacks. But there are misconceptions surrounding government-backed loans that can cloud the home-buying process and hurt both buyers and sellers.

Let's take a quick look at three benefits of government-backed loans that tend to fly under the radar.

They Have Lower Average Interest Rates

Many buyers assume they can get the best interest rate with a conventional mortgage. Depending on your credit, the size of your down payment and other factors, that might be exactly the case. But every buyer's credit and asset picture is different.

More important -- and perhaps surprisingly -- average interest rates actually tend to be lower on government-backed loans.

In February, the average note rate on a 30-year fixed conventional loan was 4.08 percent, according to mortgage technology firm Ellie Mae. That was the lowest average rate since June 2013. In comparison, the average rate for a fixed 30-year FHA loan was 3.94 percent, while the average for VA loans was even lower, at 3.77 percent.

Monthly averages are just that -- averages. The rate you are quoted will depend on the lender, your credit and finances and more. But don't automatically rule out a government-backed loan when you're shopping for the best deal. In fact, government-backed borrowers with fair or so-so credit might be able to tap into the same or similar interest rates as a conventional buyer.

They Don't Take Forever to Close

Another common misconception about government-backed loans is that they take forever to close. This one is probably rooted in some old truths, mostly because of the paperwork and bureaucracy that can accompany these loan types.

But automation, online systems and a greater focus on efficiency has helped the government loan programs catch up. For buyers, the "time to close" clock starts once you're under contract on a home. At that point, on average, there's really no difference between a conventional mortgage and a government-backed one.

The average conventional purchase loan closed in 39 days in February, according to Ellie Mae. For VA and FHA loans, it was a day longer.

On the refinance side, FHA refinances closed in 33 days on average, surpassing both conventional loans (36 days) and VA loans (37 days).

They're More Likely to Close
Sellers and lenders want to see prospective buyers make it to closing day. Veterans, service members and the historic VA home loan program all stand above the rest when it comes to closing success.

A full 73 percent of the VA purchase loan applications made over the previous 90 days went on to close, according to the February data from Ellie Mae. That's compared to 68.8 percent of conventional purchase applications and just 62.8 percent of FHA applications.

Government-backed loans aren't the solution for every buyer. In fact, only a relatively small percentage of the population is even eligible for a VA home loan. But getting a better understanding of all your mortgage options is key to getting the best deal. Don't let stereotypes or misconceptions keep you from making the strongest home loan comparison possible.

 

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Mortgage Rates Slip Lower to 3.55% After Jobs Report

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ZillowThe weekly mortgage rate chart illustrates the average 30-year fixed interest rate in six-hour intervals.

By Lauren Braun

Mortgage rates for 30-year fixed loans fell this week, with the current rate borrowers were quoted on Zillow Mortgages at 3.55 percent, down 7 basis points from last week.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate fell throughout the week, reaching 3.47 percent on Sunday before returning to the current rate.

"Rates fell sharply around Friday's highly anticipated jobs report, which showed much weaker job creation and modestly higher wages than expected," said Erin Lantz, vice president of mortgages at Zillow. "Looking ahead, we expect rates to be mostly flat, with reaction to last week's headlines and international news driving rate movement this week."

Additionally, the 15-year fixed mortgage rate was at 2.79 percent Tuesday. For 5/1 ARMs, the rate was 2.67 percent.

Check Zillow Mortgages for mortgage rate trends and up-to-the-minute mortgage rates for your state, or use the mortgage calculator to calculate monthly payments at the current rates.

 

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Julia Roberts' Simple Yet Spectacular Kauai Home is for Sale

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ZillowThe house itself is relatively modest, but Julia Roberts' large Kauai property has an extraordinary location and views.

By Melissa Allison

Julia Roberts has listed her Hawaii estate on the garden island of Kauai for $29.85 million, Pacific Business News reports.

The actress bought the Hanalei property with more than 200 feet of beachfront for $13.4 million in 2011. It is called "The Faye Estate" for the sugar plantation manager who bought it in 1915, four decades before Hawaii became a state.

"H.P. Faye had the vision and the finances to purchase not one but two lots in the best part of the Bay," according to the listing, which is held by Neal Norman of Hawai'i Life Real Estate Brokers.

The two-acre property has views "mauka and makai," meaning toward the mountains and seaward.

The 3,792-square-foot home was built in 1946 and has seven bedrooms and four bathrooms. Building may be permitted for up to 9,000 square feet for more buildings and a pool.

"Today, almost all of the lots on Hanalei Bay have been subdivided, and many of the original large estates are gone," the listing says. "The Faye property is one of a few parcels that retain the large, open feel and the only one that is available for sale."

Chuck Norris and Mark Zuckerberg bought in the area recently, as did a hedge-fund partner, according to Pacific Business News.

 

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Renters Feeling the Pinch in Least Affordable U.S. Markets

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By Melissa Allison

Waves of new residents are outpacing new housing stock in the country's least affordable rental markets, according to a Zillow analysis of U.S. rental and mortgage affordability.

In Los Angeles, where renters spend an average of 48.2 percent of their monthly income on rent, only 187 new housing units were added for every 1,000 new arrivals between 2012 and 2013. In New York, it was 383 per 1,000 newcomers. In San Francisco, it was just 193.

The middle class increasingly feels the pinch, according to Christopher Herbert, managing director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

"Low-income people have always had trouble finding affordable housing, but now as rents have gone up, that's true of middle-income people as well," said Herbert, who cites income declines as a major culprit.

Rentals are most affordable in places with slow population growth, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and areas that have met new growth with a steady supply of new housing units. Chicago, for example, permitted 906 new units for every 1,000 new residents between 2012 and 2013 -- and renters there spend an average of 31.1 percent of their income on rent.

Cities are trying to address the problem: San Francisco's mayor pledged 30,000 new and rehabilitated housing units by 2020. The Boston mayor's office issued a report recommending 53,000 new units by 2030, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to create or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over 10 years.

Although new units will help, Herbert said land prices are so high in New York, Los Angeles and other pricey markets that "it's hard to build at a [price] point that middle-income people can afford, let alone low-income people."

Some cities are developing creative solutions, such as making it easier for homeowners to add "accessory" units -- places for renters to live in garages, storage units and other underused spaces.

In the Bay Area, a nonprofit called SPUR is hosting an exhibit called "Urbanism From Within" that shows how accessory units work and how they preserve neighborhood identities.

Kristy Wang, SPUR's community planning policy director, agreed that the middle class is facing challenges that it didn't in the past.

That can be particularly tough, she said, because "it's hard to make an argument that the government should subsidize middle-income households, but it's also really important to have a middle class."

Read more about this report at Zillow Research.

 

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Alec Baldwin, So Over NYC, Selling Greenwich Village Condo

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Alec Baldwin is soooo over New York, New York, he is selling his one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village for $2.35 million.

Not so long ago, the actor told New York Magazine about how he "just can't live in New York anymore." With the paparazzi harassing his family, fans clicking phones in his face, and his relatively new reputation as a homophobe, Baldwin said his love affair with the Big Apple is done. Then he hauled the ultimate insult at Manhattan.

"Everything I hated about L.A., I'm beginning to crave," he said. "L.A. is a place where you live behind a gate, you get in a car, your interaction with the public is minimal. I used to hate that. But New York has changed. Manhattan is like Beverly Hills. And the soul of New York has moved to Brooklyn, where everything new and exciting seems to be."

Not for nothing, Baldwin later was handcuffed for mouthing off to police writing him up for bicycling the wrong way down Fifth Avenue. In a Twitter rant, the actor reportedly said the city is "a mismanaged carnival of stupidity that is desperate for revenue and anxious to criminalize behavior once thought benign."

So, Alec is getting out and trying to sell his 840-square-foot, one-bedroom condo at the Devonshire building on East 10th Street. The listing description says the place was completely renovated in 2012 by the building's developer and rarely used by its owner.

It features:
  • Four-inch oak flooring.
  • Eat-in kitchen.
  • Waterworks fixtures.
  • Appliances by Sub-Zero, Wolf and Bosch.
  • Bathroom with Calcutta marble countertops.
  • Two-person tub.
Getting rid of the pied-a-terre is just the first step in Baldwin's divorce from the city. Our pals at Curbed say he also owns a penthouse, and the unit next door at the Devonshire.

 

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5 Mowing Mistakes to Avoid to Improve Curb Appeal

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Curb appeal can be important in selling a house, giving potential buyers a first look at the outside of what could be their new home. Whether it's new paint, flowers or a new lawn that you've put down yourself, having a clean, well-kept front of a home can make a good first impression that encourages house shoppers to come inside.

If you've laid down sod yourself for your front lawn, it can be enough work to get it right and make sure the grass grows and doesn't die. But more than just watering is required afterward, and some homeowners make mistakes with a new lawn that can hurt their home's curb appeal. (If you live in an area affected by drought, low-water landscaping is an option.)

Here are five mowing mistakes to avoid if you want your lawn to give a great first impression to home buyers, according to Mark Schmidt, a principal scientist at John Deere:

1. Cutting too short: Each time you mow, only remove about one-third of the grass blade. Shorter clippings break down more easily, allowing some of the natural nitrogen to return to the soil. If you cut too much at one time, the long clippings can cause stress on the grass, inhibiting healthy growth.

Removing only a small amount of the blade each time you mow is a good practice and will give you the best quality turf.

2. Mowing pattern monotony: Mowing your lawn in the same pattern all year is one habit worth breaking. Mowing grass in the same direction all the time can mat down the turf and inhibit growth. By varying the pattern in which you mow your grass, you will avoid missing or double mowing areas and reduce wear on the turf. The will encourage a healthier, more beautiful lawn.

3. Bagging it: Though bagging clippings is a common practice, mulching is much more beneficial to your lawn. Mulching returns essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, back to the soil.

Removing only a small amount of the grass blade each time you mow produces shorter clippings that can decompose more quickly and discourages the development of fungus disease. Many mowers have mulching capabilities. If you do decide to bag, be sure to compost your clippings and reuse on site.

4. Ignoring the roots: A common mistake is managing only the parts of the lawn you can see. Caring for the grass roots and soil is one of the most important things you can do to ensure healthy year-round growth year.

Consider taking a soil sample and having a local university extension program or landscape supplier provide a soil analysis. The results will give a measure of fertility based on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels, and can help determine the best type of fertilizer to use throughout the year.

5. Blunt mower blades: A dull mower blade will shred grass blades, resulting in a poor quality of cut and potentially creating entryways for disease.

Keep the mower blade sharp for the best cut and to help promote a healthy turf. Also, be sure the blade is balanced to produce a clean cut and avoid damage to the mower.

With those tips in mind, your lawn should be one of the first things a home shopper notices when walking up to the front door. From there, let the rest of the house help make the sale.

 

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