Housing trends can come and go. But one design strategy might survive the test of time. Universal Design (UD) is the design of products and environments usable by most people, regardless of age or ability. Sometimes called “lifespan design,” it merges the principles of accessibility, ergonomics, and environmental friendliness. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, a national resource and technical assistance center, identifies UD’s key attributes, according to Caring.com.
- General appeal – UD houses appeal to the widest range of people.
- Flexibility – Spaces are easy to use and accommodate for many preferences and abilities. For example, the main living area should have one flex room, one full bath, and a laundry facility.
- Simple and intuitive use – UD homes feature controls and appliances that are easy to figure out.
- Essential information is clearly presented – Appliance controls feature symbols and colors.
- Protective features – UD minimizes potential hazards in the home. For example, double handrails on both sides of the staircase or a curbless shower provide safety and convenience for both the young and elderly.
- Efficiency of use – Switches and controls are within reach and simple to adjust.
- Appropriate size and space – Floor plans accommodate for all types of people. For example, wider hallways (five-and-a-half foot versus four-foot) are essential for residents with physical disabilities.
While Universal Design is closely related to aging-in-place, it also makes sense for those who want to stay in their houses for the longer term or market them to the largest number of potential buyers. If your household is looking to remodel using universal design concepts, consult with a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS). Most CAPS professionals are remodelers, but general contractors, designers, architects, and health care consultants are also entering the field, reports the National Association of Home Builders.
North America birthed its first “active” house in St. Louis, Mo., in March of this year. What is an “active” home? Essentially, it incorporates a comprehensive green design on the interior and exterior of the dwelling and uses a variety of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly practices and guidelines, according to Time. The “active” house both produces and conserves energy, whereas the “passive” house focuses on conservation.
But is the active home practical for the average homebuyer? Matt Blecher, principal of Verdatek Solutions LLC, a specialist in green building who managed the St. Louis project, noted that it must be affordable if the marketplace is going to support it. The home cost about $500,000 to build, more than double the average listing price of properties for sale in the same area. However, the prospect of long-term energy savings might appeal to environmentally and fiscally conservative buyers.
David and Thuy Smith, owners of the Webster Groves house, say that their new residence fits right into the older, well-established neighborhood, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Their active property has clapboard siding, a stone-trimmed foundation, and a wraparound porch with tapered Craftsman-style columns, proving that green housing can take both traditional and modern forms.
For pictures and details of America’s first active home, check out the website, activehouseusa.com.
When architect John Nystrom set out to build his retirement home, he knew the sky was the limit. But “as many architects would testify, [I] could never afford what I was capable of designing,” said Nystrom. So he decided to go with his heart and construct a dwelling inspired by a simple barn. Watch the video about this Boerne, TX, house that was made from the simple stuff of dreams.
Housing incentives are key for a thriving middle class, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Simplifying the tax code should not do away with the incentives that have helped homeowners and renters.
Robert Dietz, an economist and assistant vice president for the NAHB, defended three key incentives in his testimony during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on tax reform and residential real estate in April 2013. Dietz called on Congress to maintain its support for three critical housing tax incentives.
- The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which has provided more than 2 million affordable rental units since the program’s inception in 1986, should continue. According to U.S. Census data, more than 40 percent of renters pay over 30 percent of their household income on rent. The LIHTC can help alleviate some of this burden on our nation’s renters.
- The mortgage interest tax deduction is a real benefit tapped by the majority of homeowners; close to 70 percent of homeowners claimed the deduction in 2009. Dietz refutes the argument that the deduction drives families to buy bigger homes; larger families needing more space is the real cause.
- Repealing the real estate tax deduction can penalize homeowners who pay more than $300 billion in property taxes each year, money that goes to state and local governments.
President Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress this past February acknowledged that “a growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs… must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” reports CBS News. So how do we help the middle class? Preserving housing tax incentives is one way to achieve that goal, in Dietz’s opinion.
Interest rates for 15- and 30-year fixed mortgages continue to stay low, reports CNN Money. Last year, the 15-year fixed rate averaged 3.07 percent, but last week, it dipped to 2.56 percent. The 30-year fixed rate averaged 3.35 percent, which is only a 0.04 percentage point above the record low of November 12, 2012.
These interest rates help both potential homebuyers and existing homeowners. Competitive rates help drive consumer demand for houses and increase prices. Over the last 12 months, the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index measured a 9 percent gain in residential property prices, enabling underwater homeowners to regain some of their lost equity.
Mortgage refinance applications have gone up. Last week, they jumped by 1.8 percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, and accounted for nearly three-quarters of all home loan applications. HARP’s share of refinance applications was 34 percent last week, marking a high point since the MBA started tracking such applications in February 2012.
As of May 1, 2013, the average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,500 or less) decreased to 3.60 percent, the lowest since December 2012′s rate of 3.65 percent. The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 2.84 percent, the lowest rate since December 2012′s rate of 2.89 percent.
Tighter lending standards may be good for the U.S. housing market, but overly stringent ones are not. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, says that more Americans should have access to mortgage credit, reports The Wall Street Journal. According to the Federal Reserve’s survey of approximately 68 domestic lending institutions, about 10 percent have eased lending standards for prime or low-risk mortgages in the first quarter of 2013, an improvement over the 5 percent level in the previous quarter.
Monday’s report reveals that a modest net fraction of banks were more likely to approve an application with a fairly good credit score and a 20 percent down payment. Banks that are risk-averse are still lending to the most credit-worthy borrowers, but households that have less than stellar credit are slowly but surely gaining some access. To see the full survey, click on the Fed report.
According to FICO (Fair Isaac and Company), individuals can have three FICO credit scores, one for each of the major bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. These numbers can differ based on the data each agency has. Payment history and outstanding amounts owed comprise the largest percentage of the overall score. Length of credit history, new credit, and types of credit used make up the remaining criteria.
For more information on how credit scores affect your ability to secure a mortgage, consult with your lending professional.
Lumber prices in North America are rising as the U.S. housing market recovers, Chinese demand continues, and Canada’s export of lumber is constrained due to a beetle infestation, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. In March, sales of new single-family properties jumped 1.5 percent, and housing starts rose to a 1.04 million annual rate, the fastest since 2008. According to the National Association of Builders, a 2,400-square-foot home in the U.S. typically requires about 14,400 board feet of softwood lumber.
The mills that slowed production as a result of the housing bubble are now starting to ramp up, but builders are challenged by the rising cost of materials. Construction companies are paying more for lumber and other materials used heavily in residential building. For example, the Toll Brothers Inc., the biggest U.S. luxury-home builder, paid approximately $3,000 more per home in material and labor costs in its fiscal first quarter ended January 13, with lumber comprising two-thirds of that additional expenditure.
Gerry Van Leeuwen, vice president at consultant International Wood Markets Group in Vancouver, said that “for the first time ever, we have a recovery in North American housing alongside a very robust China market, and Canada cannot go back to peak production any time soon.” The combination of these factors are causing prices to go up around the world.
According to Finance & Commerce, the cost of certain building materials went up by double digits in the past year. Gypsum products jumped 14 percent, lumber and plywood 10.8 percent, and architectural coatings including paint 10.1 percent. Passing off the higher material costs to buyers is easier to do in places where demand for new construction is high but tougher in regions where inventory of existing homes can meet consumer needs. With the current trend of rising home prices, however, builders are better able to handle the higher costs. Shawn Nelson, president of New Spaces, based in Burnsville, Minn., noted that builders will be “able to sell their homes at price points that make sense for them now.”
Housing prices were up 9.3 percent in February from last year’s levels, based on Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city index. The Index shows the biggest gain since 2006, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The recent housing recovery has been driven by several key factors — near record-low mortgage rates, a drop in foreclosures, and reduced unemployment. As a result, housing prices have come up to late 2003 levels, reports Business Insider. While there is still a ways to go in terms of recovery, the bounce is definitely back in the housing market, even in the midst of worries.
Some real estate experts were concerned about a shadow inventory, but that hasn’t been a significant factor in many regions. Second, housing prices were expected to slow down in the winter months, but they didn’t. Instead, demand for housing remains strong, while inventory is relatively low at a 4.7-month supply. Price gains are the best in areas with strong job growth and the weakest in places where foreclosures remain high.
Could another real estate bubble occur? Scott Nagel, chief of real estate operations for Redfin, says that bad loans had a lot to do with the bubble that popped five years ago, according to HousingWire. “In contrast, today’s rapidly rising home prices are largely driven by the abundance of all-cash offers and a lack of inventory. And when the home purchases are financed, appraisals and other tight lending practices are keeping home prices more in check.”
It’s natural for homeowners to experience some regret after buying. Trulia’s recent spring survey indicates that 32 percent of those polled wish they had purchased more square footage and 27 percent wish they had done more remodeling. Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, discusses these and other top homeowner and renter regrets with Gwendolyn Bounds of The Wall Street Journal.