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Archives for January 8, 2014

What home sellers can expect in the market this year


Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A year ago, we saw far fewer “For Sale” signs. And this year, there are even fewer.

The surprising thing about the real estate market is its resiliency. It never fails to surprise how decisively a market turns. When it’s time, it’s time. And it’s clear to us that 2014 is looking very good for real estate.

There are a few troubled spots on the horizon: Mortgage interest rates are at least one percentage point higher than they were a year ago. And home prices are higher. That means homes are less affordable than they were, particularly since incomes haven’t risen, in real terms, in years.

That’s good news, and not so good news for sellers. It’s great that home prices are rising. In part, homes that were in foreclosure or listed as short sales, have closed and now prices are rising again. But rising interest rates (depending on how high they go) mean fewer buyers can afford to pay those higher prices.

At the end of 2011, mortgage interest rates reached 3.7 percent, before falling back. In 2012, mortgage interest rates were about 3.3 percent on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. We ended the year with mortgage interest rates around 3.5 percent for a 30-year fixed rate loan. In 2013, we ended at 4.3 percent for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. (If you’re wondering, we think these rates are still great from a historical perspective.)

The Federal Reserve has indicated it will now pull back its monthly spend of $85 billion in mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities, which it did to keep interest rates at historic lows through 2015, or when the employment rate falls to 6.5 percent. The economy is improving. Third quarter 2013 GDP numbers were revised upward to 4.1 percent. The economy hasn’t grown that fast in years.

So, with low inventory, still low mortgage interest rates, and modestly rising prices, here’s what you need to do to get your home in selling shape for 2014: 

Overcome any possible objections a buyer would have.

Buyers are always looking for a reason not to purchase your house. Your job as a seller is to eliminate any potential objections that would stand in the way for a buyer to make an offer.

If you really want to sell quickly, you’ll work hard to exceed the buyer’s expectation of your home as well. If your home is competitively priced, and your home’s condition exceeds a buyer’s expectations based on other homes in the neighborhood, you’ll get an offer — even if it isn’t the offer you want.

Get your home into selling shape.

Cleaning your home is a must. After that, you should consider hiring a stager to give your home the television-worthy polish so many buyers expect today. (Yes, they want your home to look like something they’d see on HGTV.) Assess what other sort of work needs to be done, such as fixing things that don’t work, touching up paint, or cleaning or replacing your carpets.

Decide if you need to update your landscaping, and paint, clean or tuck point your home’s exterior. And if you’re selling in January, clear out the holiday decorations as quickly as possible.

Invite at least three agents to create a comparative marketing analysis (CMA).

Often, sellers simply call the agent who sold them their home to list it. While you may wind up hiring that person, you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you invite a couple of other agents in from different firms. That’s because each will bring different ideas to the table about how much your house is worth and what kind of marketing plan will work. They’ll all have different experiences to draw on and have different buyers in mind who may want to make a quick offer.

Understand what it will take to sell your home.

If you live in an area littered with foreclosures, you may have to meet that price point in order to sell. Is it worth it? Probably not, but you’ll have to really evaluate price and timing in order to get the most for your property. If homes have begun to appreciate, you might be pleasantly surprised. Again, a CMA will be incredibly helpful.

Be realistic about the market.

Find out what types of properties are selling in your area and how many days they’re sitting on the market. Accept the reality of your local market and make sure you price your home realistically.

Don’t blame your broker if you don’t get three offers over your list price within 24 hours of putting your home on the market. Sellers who set sky-high (or even pretty high) prices could wait months or years for an offer (one of my neighbors has been trying to sell his overpriced home for years) and may wind up with the same price they would have had if they’d priced their home correctly the first time — or a lot less.

In this real estate market, one of the worst things you can do is overprice your home from the start. The more realistic you are, the better off you’ll be.

Rent if you can’t sell and buy at the same time.

We don’t recommend putting in an offer on another property until you have some serious interest in your current property or unless you have enough cash to cover the expenses of both properties for six to 12 months.

It’s fine to start researching other neighborhoods, but if you’re not sure what you want to do, consider renting on a short-term or month-to-month lease. While a double move is a pain, and does have some added costs, it’s a lot cheaper than carrying two mortgages for two years.

Read all documents thoroughly before you sign them.

Why would someone sign a legal document he or she hasn’t read? I’m not sure, but home sellers do it every day. If you’re going to sell (or buy) in the coming year, promise yourself that you’ll take the time to read and understand the listing contract, offer to purchase and loan documents for your next purchase.

(If you’re taking back a loan for the home buyer, have an attorney prepare the documents so you are sure to be protected.) Unless you’ve got cash to spare, a mistake in these documents and the warranties they contain could seriously affect your finances.

Don’t be greedy.

One big mistake many sellers make is to get a little greedy, particularly if the first offer is above the minimum acceptable price you’ve set. Then the negotiation becomes a game of how much you can get.

Remember, a successful sale means everyone walks away feeling happy. If you get so greedy that the buyer walks away, you’ve let the deal get the best of you. Resolve to be reasonable and you’ll end up shaking hands with the buyer at the closing. You should also know that there aren’t unlimited buyers out there, and if you lose one it might take you quite some time to find another.

Ilyce R. Glink’s latest book is “Buy, Close, Move In!” If you have questions, you can call her radio show toll-free (800-972-8255) any Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST. Contact Ilyce through her Web site,

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City asks for input on Laurel Lakes landscaping

As the city moves forward with a project to clean up the upper of the two Laurel Lakes, Laurel officials are asking residents for landscaping suggestions.

Officials from the Prince George’s County’s Department of Environmental Resources told the community in November that designs for a dredging project to excavate sediment from the upper lake were nearly complete. County officials expect to have fully completed designs and all the necessary permits in place by March, so that dredging can begin in mid-July.

According to city officials, landscaping around the upper lake is intentionally not part of the dredging project, so that local residents can have the opportunity to share their own ideas and preferences.

Suggestions can be emailed to Officials said all submitted suggestions will be reviewed to “develop the best landscaping plan possible,” according to a press release.

With the dredging project, the county hopes to remove 15,000 cubic yards of sediment from the upper lake, located near Oxford Street. The project will cost about $1.5 million.

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Downtown revitalization meeting polls public

Downtown revitalization meeting polls public

Downtown revitalization meeting polls public

Scottsbluff-Gering United Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen

Anderson and Midwest Theater Executive Director Billy Estes examine an aerial image of downtown Scottsbluff during an open house meeting at the Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff Tuesday. The meeting aimed to gather public input on possible downtown landscaping, hardscaping and pedestrian improvements.

Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 12:00 am

Downtown revitalization meeting polls public

Staff Reporter

Star Herald

The next phase of revitalization in downtown Scottsbluff is taking its first steps.

During an open house at the Midwest Theater Tuesday, a team of consultants hired by the City of Scottsbluff asked for the public’s thoughts on possible downtown landscaping, hardscaping and pedestrian improvements.

Following a walking tour of downtown Scottsbluff with local business and city leaders, Dropseed Studio, an Omaha-based design firm, presented meeting attendees with a series of images and data that paint a picture of what downtown Scottsbluff was and what it is today.

Attendees shared their ideas on what they thought downtown should be and Scottsbluff City Planner Annie Folck said Dropseed will use those findings to help the city develop the innovative and sustainable aesthetics that will turn downtown into a destination.

“This is a brainstorming session to collect thoughts and get an idea of what people would like to see happen,” she said.

The Dropseed team divulged a few of the possibilities for the Scottsbluff Downtown Landscape Design and Stormwater Master Plan during a brief presentation at the tail end of the open house. To help attendees picture what an improved landscape could do for a downtown area, the team pointed to examples of downtowns around the nation that had undergone similar changes.

Bryan Kinghorn, president of Kinghorn Garden, Dropseed’s parent company, said Scottsbluff is a one-of-a-kind community and Dropseed’s aim is to capture the city’s unique character and apply it to the identity of the downtown area.

“Our goal is to instill a sense of place and aesthetic that will ultimately increase commerce in the downtown,” said Dropseed Representative Tom Bentley.

The process continues today as Dropseed begins a “pin-up process” and works on drawing up the ideas covered in Tuesday’s walking tour and the open house. Members of the public are invited to stop by the Midwest Theater to speak with the firm’s consultants, share input and see the process from 9 to 3 p.m., Folck said.

At 5:30 p.m., Dropseed consultants will host another public presentation, presenting the pin-up ideas and will later return to Omaha and develop a master plan.

After a plan is arranged, Nathan Johnson, assistant city manager for the City of Scottsbluff, said the Scottsbluff City Council will incorporate it into the budget process and decide whether the proposed improvements can be funded in one large project or if improvements will be implemented in phases.

New Media Editor Maunette Loeks contributed to this report.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014 12:00 am.

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The magic of Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma

Adventure, whimsy and inspiration are all yours, and free, when you visit Northern California’s Cornerstone Sonoma Gardens.

This unusual place stands alone in bringing a different perspective to the word “garden” because it offers landscape architects and garden designers the freedom to exercise extraordinary creativity in more than 22 individual garden spaces.

Chris Hougie and his wife, Teresa Raffo, were honeymooning in France when they visited the International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont-sur-Loire. Both were intrigued by this new way to experience beauty and art; after returning home they thought about developing something similar in California. Nine acres was found and designers were told “to invent, inform, and create beautiful and compelling gardens that engage and inspire the viewer intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

“Working with all the designers really was wonderful,” Hougie said. “Clients give them constraints, and we had no constraints. Such freedom with this level of professionalism works out really, really well. Working with them was one of the best parts of the project.” He credits landscape architect Peter Walker and Mark Francis, professor emeritus, UC Davis, for their “very valuable help in the inception of the project.”

Visitors are invited to play, wander, think, and try creating interesting garden spaces of their own when they return home.

Ron Lutsko Jr. and project manager Roderick Wyllie worked to create the garden so that as landscape design changed, the different garden installations could change.

Raffo, project manager for new gardens with oversight of all events and promotions, said she especially enjoys working with landscape architects and designers when they take up residence at the garden. Teams get together over dinner to talk about progress or setbacks and discover the many microclimates when they stay a while. Three Chinese designers are currently working on a garden that features growing food for the future. “It will be about beauty and also functionality,” Raffo said.

The area dedicated to the children has a vineyard, colorful sandbox, climbing structure and birdhouses large enough for a family of condors. It was designed by MIG, a planning and design firm.

“Children don’t have any preconceived idea of what a garden should be,” Hougie said. His favorite day was the opening of the children’s garden. “We had thousands of happy kids running through the gardens.” Children are just as intrigued as adults by this collection of artistic landscape designs. Watching a 9-year-old gaze at sculptures or sit on them, roll huge garden balls about, or perch on a giant blue adirondack chair for a photo op is sheer delight.

Some design features are interesting if one takes a quick look, but visitors who look closer see more. That charming metal fence forming a series of hearts may be clever, but when you walk past the fence and into the garden space your feet are walking on a metal path of broken hearts.

Gorilla mulch, gravel in a variety of colors and sizes, grass, tumbled colored glass, metal, even pottery shards play a role your feet can experience here.

The red Chinese lantern looks lovely sitting in a pond filled with tiny mosquito fish. Closer inspection reveals the colorful red glass beads hanging from it are shaped like teardrops. The Chinese-inspired elements reference the migrant workers who came to California during the Gold Rush and stayed to build the Central Pacific Railroad.

“Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers” by landscape designer Mario Schjetnan of Mexico reminds visitors of the enormous help Mexican labor is to the success of California’s agriculture. Metal serves as a walk and a wall, and reflected heat reminds viewers of the desert where illegal immigrants die. One of the newest gardens has a more than 2,000-pound silver tree designed by Regan Gentry. It required great effort to anchor so a windstorm couldn’t roll it like a giant tumbleweed into Sonoma. This garden, designed by Suzannne Biaggi of Petaluma, also incorporates sound as one of its features. Bertotti Landscaping was instrumental in building it.

Petaluma Seed Bank contributes heirloom squash, flower, and gourd seeds for one of the gardens. The gourds dangle from their trellis in shapes that belong in cartoons. It’s one of those “try this at home, it’s fun” gardens.

Mary McCorkle lives in Los Osos. Contact her at

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Mickley: Landscapes catch the eye as gardener scoops top award

AGARDEN company based in Mickley has scooped a national award.

Northumbrian Landscaping was one of only three companies to receive an award in their category at the British Association of Landscaping Industries awards.

The company was presented with its award at a lavish ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

A recent project at a small residential garden in Durham impressed judges and earned the company an award in the category for Domestic Garden Construction with a cost of under £30k.

Company director, Peter Cunliffe said: “Receiving an award for our work is absolutely great.

“I’m really pleased for the North-East as well because, of everyone at the ceremony, we were the only company north of Watford Gap which won an award.

“There was about 45 entries in all so it was really gratifying to receive an award.

“It’s really great to represent the North-East.”

The project, entitled Living in a Box aimed to soften the transition between indoor and outdoor living to increase the useable space of the property.

Colours similar to those inside the property were featured to add cohesion to the design.

A ‘living wall’ was also incorporated, featuring rusted steel in the style of the Angel of the North with planting slots curled over the top to give a wave effect.

A glass covered lean-to was constructed above the property’s french windows to enable the doors to be left open even during periods of rain.

The garden was designed to be low-maintenance to tie in with a busy lifestyle and incorporated hard clean surfaces, timed irrigation facilities and built in seating and storage.

The company was established 12 years ago when former civil engineer Peter decided to put his creativity to good use.

Northumbrian Landscaping now runs with a dedicated team of four who offer sculptural installations, lighting, ponds, plunge pools and water features as well as planning design and consultancy services.

The close-knit team run the business from offices at Tyne Valley Garden Centre in Mickley Square.

Peter said; “I come from a civil engineering background but my parents were both very keen gardeners so I’ve grown up with it.

“I wanted to do something with a little bit more creativity, and garden landscaping is a great way to see a project through from the outset to completion.

“We do the whole project ourselves, from start to finish; we’re electricians, plumbers and carpenters.

“Over the years we’ve continued to learn and train to become masters of all trades.

“We’re passionate about Northumberland – a lot of inspiration for our work comes from what you can see around you in this part of the world.

“If you go down for a walk by the river you’ll see the layering of the rocks – which became the basis for a bench we made.

“Winning a national award is a great achievement for us.

“We’ve got our sights set on Chelsea now, and the larger shows.

“We’re currently applying for sponsorship for show gardens at some of the Northern shows as a first step in that directions.

“Then we’ll tackle the big boys at Chelsea and show them what we can do.”

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Landscape professionals protect the wildlife

RESTON, Va. – Landscaping professionals around the country are now able to become a Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professional under National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program. The professional must demonstrate a commitment to supporting ecologically sound and wildlife-friendly methods of landscaping in the business. NWF and landscape professionals around the country are combining forces to address a nationwide concern for wildlife habitat loss and fragmentation.

NWF’s brand new Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professional program certifies landscaping professionals as a complement to its long-standing Certified Wildlife Habitat program and its companion programs, Schoolyard Habitats and Community Wildlife Habitat. These wildlife-friendly landscapes and gardens help keep water and air resources clean, are healthier for people and the environment, and are less resource-dependent than conventional landscapes. Wildlife-friendly landscapes can serve to enrich our urban areas and give residents pride in their neighborhoods.

“We’re partnering with professional landscapers to promote sound wildlife conservation efforts through their business practices,” says Jaime Matyas, executive vice president and COO of National Wildlife Federation. “This program connects homeowners, schools, businesses and others with professionals who can help them create an outdoor space that will serve as a haven for wildlife for years to come.”

“There’s no more rewarding way of helping wildlife than by restoring habitat in our cities and towns,” says David Mizejewski, naturalist with National Wildlife Federation. “Whether it’s in our own backyards, a local schoolyard or park, or even a corporate landscape, any place that can support a garden can attract colorful birds, beautiful butterflies and other wildlife. There’s no better way of connecting with nature than stepping out the door into a wildlife-friendly garden.”

The Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professional program engages professionals who can commit to becoming more sustainable in their business practices and encourage wildlife in their communities through their services to homeowners, businesses, schools, churches, parks and other institutions. As a benefit for becoming certified, professionals receive certification, marketing resources, and promotion to the nation’s largest wildlife gardening network and more than 4 million members. Certified professionals are profiled on NWF’s growing searchable database of Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professionals as a way to assist individuals, businesses, and organizations to find a landscape professional who can help them become more wildlife-friendly in their own landscapes. For more information, please go to:

For more National Wildlife Federation news, visit:

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Plants by post?

Ordering plants from mail order suppliers can be a risky business, a new survey uncovers. Hannah Stephenson reports

Shopping by mail order is meant to make our lives easier, but the reality is often a little different – especially, it seems, if you’re a gardener.

In fact, according to a recent survey carried out by Which? Gardening, the Consumers’ Association magazine, some 38% of customers have experienced at least one problem with mail order plants.

The Association first investigated customers’ experiences of buying plants through mail order back in the summer of 2012. While around eight in 10 said they were happy, 36% of people said they had experienced problems, the most common of which were the quality of plants or bulbs provided, packages being left on the doorstep while customers were away and damaged packaging. Others received dead or dying plants, specimens that were too small or which quickly succumbed to disease and some which were rotten on arrival.

In response to this, the Consumers’ Association came up with The Which? Gardening Best Practice Criteria, a 10-point plan retailers should adopt to ensure a better experience for gardeners, with points such as giving an accurate description of the plant (including its size), flagging up any particular growing requirements, adopting strict quality control measures before the plants are sent out and ensuring packaging is secure enough to completely protect the plant in transit.

So, did the measures work?

To find out, Which? carried out a follow-up survey of more than 2,500 people in September 2013, and the 2,597 members who’d bought plants by mail order in the previous year recalled their latest experiences.

There were mixed results. Top-scoring suppliers included Blackmoor, Bloms Bulbs, David Austin Roses, Crocus and The RHS Plant Shop, while at the bottom were Bakker, Spalding Bulbs and Garden Bargains.

So clearly some companies have improved their service, but others haven’t. Either way though, whoever you chose to order your plants with, you need to know your rights.

If you receive a plant you think is dead, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 says you are entitled to a refund, as long as you have notified the retailer of the problem within ‘a reasonable time’. What is ‘reasonable’ depends on the circumstances, but is typically three to four weeks, or less, from when the goods are received. Contact the seller as soon as you know there’s a problem.

If a plant you receive is diseased, you can ask for your money back, again within a reasonable time, or a replacement. In the first six months, the onus is on the seller to prove the plants weren’t supplied diseased rather than you having to prove that they were.

It makes no difference if the plants were damaged before they were sent or in transit, it’s the seller’s responsibility, so you can ask for your money back, within that reasonable time, or a replacement. Don’t let the seller put the onus on you to take it up with the courier they used.

If you’ve had a problem with a plant you ordered and have asked for a refund immediately, but the seller has offered you a credit against future purchases instead, don’t accept this offer if you don’t want to. Where the contract is breached, you are entitled to a refund or, if you prefer, a replacement. The seller cannot decide you will only get a credit note. Any part of their terms and conditions that might suggest they can, would be unenforceable and could be challenged as unfair.

:: The full report is in the January/February issue of Which? Gardening. Sign up to Which? for a one month trial for £1 and get access to all its product reviews, test scores and Best Buy or Don’t Buy ratings. Visit for more information.

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The Potted Desert Garden: Tips on Bringing the Tropics Home to Your Desert …

I was very fortunate in 2013. Not only was I able to finally marry my partner of 20 years; we were able to spend our honeymoon, including the holidays, on Kauai, in Hawaii. We enjoyed every minute of our time on the island.

As I tried to write this column from my lanai (porch)—looking out at a tropical natural garden and the distant ocean, as I listened to the birds and the waves crashing—I thought about how to bring a touch of the tropics back home to the desert.

Freezing nights are rare in the Coachella Valley, so we are able to stretch our plant choices a little further than those in many other desert areas—as long as we can provide most of our plants with heavily filtered sun or afternoon shade.

The south side of my home, with an 8-foot-wide side yard, is shaded by my neighbors’ towering oleanders. This is really the walkway to the backyard, but I was able to turn the side yard into a mini-oasis which tends to be about 10 degrees cooler than other areas of my landscape.

Many plants that we have come to know as house plants are actually tropical plants that cannot survive the cold temperatures that most of the United States experiences; we are familiar with names like pothos, dracaena and philodendron. In full shade, and with cold protection if the temperatures go below 40, these plants can offer tropical wonders for our patio oasis.

Plants that will tolerate more sun (but still will want afternoon shade most of the year) are the Rose of Sharon, hibiscus, sago palm (Cycas revoluta), daylilies (which offer clumps of arching sword-like leaves and can be evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous, depending on the species), agapanthus, butterfly iris, cordyline and coleus.

Full sun plants include many of our palm trees; the entire Yucca family (many of which are very tropical in appearance); and many broad leafed agaves.

Design tips:

  • Plan your tropical garden to be near your home, perhaps as part of your seating area. The majority of the plants require heavily filtered light; since you can appreciate similar conditions, why not make the garden part of your outdoor living area?
  • Plan the flooring to be as cool as possible. Non-reflective colors in earthtones or blue hues work well. You might consider adding an outdoor carpet to the seating area.
  • Think in levels or layers of plantings, as you would see in a tropical garden. Low plantings around the seating areas in low pots will do well; they’re also good for bordering walkways. Then add mid-height plants in taller pots or pots up on pedestals, as well as pots with trellises for some vines.
  • Further back—toward walls or away from the patio—think about larger plants and trees, while still trying to keep the layered effect of the three heights of plants. A couple of citrus or palm trees would work well, as would an evergreen pistache tree, with a mixture of hibiscus and a blue-leafed agave such as the Agave colorata. Definitely keep in mind your bougainvillea and birds of paradise, both tropical (shade) and Mexican (sun)!
  • Consider adding a water feature to your garden. It will add a lot to your tropical paradise in the desert.


Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. Email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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