30 April 2010

OT: An outstanding tool for (modern) photographers

When I started this blog, I included "unrelated news" to the sub-head because from time to time I want to write about off-topics that don't quite fit into my website. Today is one of those days.

While I worked in advertising for ca. ten years, practically all the photo shoots I attended took place under controlled studio conditions. To an amateur photographer like me, these studios (especially where we shot cars), the equipment and the lighting capabilities were fascinating.

Under open skies, everything is different.

I am sure many of you can relate. Remember how you tried to take a photo of [the Statue of Liberty, your oldest kid at graduation, Richard Neutra's Brown residence], only to realise you were at the right place at the wrong time: the sun right in your face and a big black blob of a silhouette in front of the lens?

So sad, too bad. If you only had known the hour when the light was illuminating your target properly, you would have planned your photo session better.

Here is where Stephen Trainor enters. Because Stephen, an Englishman and photographer living in Colorado since 2007, programmed an application called The Photographer's Ephemeris, or TPE. 

It's nothing short of wonderful.

(I admit: I had to look up what Ephemeris means. The plural ephemerides – from the Greek word ἐφήμερος ephemeros for "daily" –  sounds like a tasty meze to me.) 
TPE (Mac, Windows, Linux and yes, also an iphone app for all those iphone-crazed photographers and yacht captains) is a free application that calculates sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset and shadow lines for any location you can pick on a Google map.  
In addition, if you don't shoot in pancake flat territory, TPE will also consider the elevation of your location and any possible interference from obstacles blocking the light, such as mountain ridges, as well as include the sun's angle on any chosen date.

TPE has many uses besides landscape and architectural photography. I recently used it to determine sunrise and -set for a house clients were interested in writing an offer on. Having the evening sun in the garden and on the pool was one of their selection criteria. 
Instead of observing current sun angles in early April and praying for the best in June and December, I located the property on TPE's Google map, picked the shortest and longest days on the app calendar, and showed the results to my delighted clients.

Sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset for a chosen location, L: Dec 22; R: Jun 22

A phenomenally useful tool. Thank you, Stephen.

23 April 2010

Poll; Cost vs. Value of Home Improvement


My website ModernSouthFlorida has a sister site in German called ModerneArchitekturFlorida. Last week, I completed the re-design of that site.

Which one do you prefer? Please take 80 seconds, take a peek at both sites and then vote please – see poll in the left sidebar. The content is identical, so reading German is not really necessary. Hearing your opinion would be great, thank you so much (and please don't let me hang out there without any votes!).


(Thumbnails should link to sites, but if not please use the URLs)


Nearly all of my buying clients have remodeling needs of some sort or the other. And nearly always, the discussion starts before we even enter a house. Interesting is that most laypeople – me included – are pretty terrible estimating remodeling cost, and are hopelessly in the dark on how much value a specific project will add to the market value of the house. 

There’s help for both situations.

For estimating rehab-, renovation- and repair-costs, I compiled a handy little spreadsheet that I update annually. It lists approximate costs for ca. 60 to 80 projects, from replacing a light switch to replacing complete roofs per square of different materials.

Much more interesting: To quantify how much return a home remodeling project generates in resale value, the trade publication Realtor© Magazine in conjunction with Remodeling Magazine publish a yearly Cost vs. Value-report. The 2009-2010 issue – the 22nd annual – lists costs and resale values for 33 popular remodeling projects.

National and regional data are posted on costvsvalue.com. Under threat of sending my family into slavery, I am not allowed to post the Miami tables here, but individual MSA data (in Florida for Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa and Orlando) are available for downloading after free registration.

The top five projects in resale value in the South Atlantic region:

Project Cost Resale Value Recouped
Entry Door Repl (steel) $1,065 $1,562 146.80%
Attic Bedroom remodel $43,540 $39,171 90.00%
Deck Addition $9,505 $7,589 79.80%
Siding (vinyl) $9,562 $7,698 80.50%
Minor Kitchen Remodel $20,504 $15,923 77.70%

And the five biggest loosers:       

Project Cost Resale value Recouped
Home Office Remodel $26,794 $12,754 47.60%
Sunroom Addition $68,362 $37,805 55.30%
Backup Power Generator $13,215 $7,909 59.90%
Bathroom Addition $34,876 $21,692 62.20%
Garage Addition $53,307 $35,132 65.90%

Without revealing deep secrets, I can say that there is some difference between the Miami and South Atlantic data:

Projects certain to loose money in the greater Miami area: a home office remodel (40% return on the cost), a sunroom addition (63%), a garage addition (65%) and a fiberglass entry-door (69%).

If you want 100% or more return on your investment in Southeast Florida, you have only two projects to choose from: a steel entry-door replacement and an attic bedroom remodel. Who would have thought? 

Other projects will increase the resale value of your home, but don’t expect to get 100% of your money back. But then, you probably enjoyed your new kitchen and new baths while you lived in the house anyway.

Dubious: Basement Remodels are also listed as high return-project among the Miami data. Would the two Floridians who have basements please contact me?

CostvsValue data ©2009 Hanley Wood, LLC. Reproduced by permission. Complete city data from the Remodeling 2009–10. Cost vs. Value Report can be downloaded free at www.costvsvalue.com.

16 April 2010

Renters rights in a foreclosure, funny MLS photos


I do not handle rentals per se, and I am not licensed to practice law. But yesterday I received a late-night call from a friend who rents a house in Coral Gables. When he came home in the evening, he found a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal of Foreclosure and Release of Lis Pendens on his door. Nice welcome, huh?

He was irritated, to say the least, and wondering what exactly his rights are in case the property he lives in gets foreclosed.

A little-known Federal law called the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, effective since last year, addresses the issue.

In essence: if a tenant has a lease  – and even though oral leases are valid, it better be in writing – he/she has the right to stay in the property until the end of the lease. If there is no lease, or if the buyer claims the property as his/her residence, the tenant has 90 days to vacate. (Note that these provisions phase out with the end of 2012, and Florida law is far less protective.)

The Federal act however doesn’t slow down some bullying attorneys, banks and landlords (never seen or heard of a bullying Realtor. You?). As the Miami Herald reported this week, they count on the lack of knowledge
on part of the tenants and go for the instant solution, sometimes evicting within 48 hours.

Worse: ”The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 40 percent of households that lose their homes to foreclosure are renters. It stands to reason that in the city of Miami, where 64 percent of homes are rentals and there are 25,000 foreclosures in process, the proportion is much higher.”

Tenants are often unaware that their residence is in foreclosure. My friend in the Gables found out only through the love-note from the lender. But throughout the proceedings, his landlord continued to collect rent without informing him.

If you suspect that the property you are renting could be heading towards foreclosure or is already there, please speak with a real estate attorney. If you need attorney recommendations, let me know.


In this difficult market, most real estate agents put their best foot forward to attract the most buyers and present the property in it's best light. 

For some though, all the effort just doesn't seem to work. Here are a few of the main property photos (means: the first photo a Realtor sees when pulling this property up) from our database MLS:

(Photos are unedited, except where house number and information on yard sign were deleted.)

09 April 2010

Statewide Open House, $8k credit ending soon, March Statistics


Spiffy idea: this Saturday and Sunday, 10 and 11 April, Florida Realtors are holding the first statewide Open House Weekend. 

The purpose of the event is twofold: it offers prospective buyers a convenient way to see as many homes as they can cram into two days. And it gives curious people an insight into their neighbors' living rooms. (That is not the second reason according to the Florida Association of Realtors, that’s my take). It is also a coordinated approach to attract buyers and help them learn about prices and availability in their local housing market.

How do you find participating houses? More than 35,000 blue balloons featuring the Realtor® logo will be flying above mailboxes at participating open houses from the Panhandle to Key West. Not sure how a blue balloon with the Realtor®-logo looks like? No sweat:

The timing is no coincidence: interest rates are low, inventory is still above average (see graph below), and the Florida Open House Weekend is two weeks before the April 30 deadline for the home-buyer tax credit (see below).

Florida Realtors aren’t the only ones giddying up: colleagues on LinkedIn told me that – among other states – North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio and Illinois also designated April 10 and 11 as Open House Weekend.


If you’re not in a home-buying mood while reading this: you’re not missing out on anything. But: if you happen to be in the market for a house (or condominium), please don’t throw $8k into the Intracoastal. Take advantage of the federal tax credits for house purchases.

But they expire soon: buyers must sign a purchase contract by April 30 and close on the deal by June 30. First-time buyers get up to $8,000 in tax credits, existing owners can get up to $6,500 in tax credits.

Email or call me immediately if you feel the itch to go out now and buy a little something. Ideally something modern, please.



It may be an effect of the federal tax credits (see above), or it may be... I don’t know what else it may be. A major jump for sure. But a turn?

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as they say in German (speak after me please: “Eine Schwalbe macht noch keinen Sommer”). So let’s not get overly excited. But the numbers baffled me. The March market for all single family homes in the Tri-County area*:
  • Inventory for sale: 26,358 units, 10 months supply
  • Median asking price: $316,333
  • Median asking price per sf: $158
  • Units sold last month: 2,739
  • Median selling price: $210,233
  • Median selling price per sf: $112

(Mar 2009 – Mar 2010. Red: SFH asking prices in Tricounty area, green: selling prices, blue: inventory in months)

From February to March, nothing really changed, except that a truckload more houses (+50.1%) sold, at a slightly higher price (+9.0%). If nothing internally is different, what else could it be? External factors. Compare the September/October-dip in inventory (when everyone thought the tax credits would expire in November) with March. So for the likely culprit, you don’t need to look farther than one chapter up.


Following this market-segment closely, I counted 13 modern sales last month. 26 modern properties dropped out of the race as unsold, 31 homes had price reductions, resulting in a $151,000 drop in median asking price. One bold seller went up 10%; talk about anti-cyclical behaviour. 
  • Modern houses for sale per 31 March*: 273
  • Asking price range: $189,000 – $42,000,000
  • Median asking price: $1,299,000
  • Median asking price per sf: $364
  • Modern houses sold March: 13
  • Volume sold: $18,263,250
  • Median asking price of sold homes: $829,000
  • Median selling price: $754,250
  • Median selling price per sf: $260 (more than double than general inventory)
  • Median Days on Market: 89
The increases are staggering: +66% median list price, +31% median list price per sf, +51% median selling price, and +12% median selling price per sf. As in previous months, sellers are jumping the gun: asking for more doesn’t directly translate into getting more. But the spike in March is strong.

Again: if this is a trend-change or a fad we will know earliest in August or September, when all possible effects of the tax credits are eliminated (for the credits to be applicable, closings have to place by 30 June, means we will see July figures by mid-August). My feeling: it won't last.

Two comments about available homes: Sometimes prospective buyers want to hire me with unreasonable expectations. At the lower end of the price range, one can expect a fixer-upper with modern bones, and a major need to strip and renovate. At $189,000, there are no Singers, Nims or Duckhams. Please be realistic.

And: could one qualified reader please contact me about this $42m house and buy it?

It skews my data. And it’s just sitting around, right on that ocean there, lonely and not getting any younger. Do you have my number?

I sure hope you enjoyed reading my April 1 post last week as much as I had fun writing it. Have a good weekend, and happy open-house hunting.

(*known/observed properties only)

01 April 2010

Instant Modern Architecture

(Friday's post appears today, Thursday, as I won't be able to post this on Friday.)

The idea is so genius, I am baffled that no one came up with it before. 

Encouraged by the national housing slump, discouraged by the lack of truly affordable and portable modernist housing, a bright and energetic team based in Fayetteville, NC, set out to tackle not one, but several previously unknown architectural problems at the same time. Joining forces with Nuclear Ranch magazine’s Minimalist Housing for Mobile Modern Masses series, they injected the word Inflatable into the project.

Team members Irmgård Kea, industrial designer last seen working on the Icarus-project, Wilburdeen Kamphoefner, an immensely promising older architect, and Franz Xaver Emmanuel Matts-Schwätzerle, Australian inflatable manufacturer with family roots in the Black Forest, bumped into each other in Munich last year during a barbecue competition and hit it off right away over some pulled pork and starkbier.

The idea was to come up with simple, modernist, transportable housing that would be easy to produce, sell for under $50,000, and should inflate in less than 7,992 hours with either a foot-pump or the aid of widely available CO2-bottles used for bicycle tires or sparkling water. 

Their first design concept looked promising, if not challenging for an inflatable design:

A few setbacks followed. Several details got lost or changed on the way from model building to the first prototype, as Kea readily admits during a phone interview: “We got a bit carried away during the design process and may not have consulted enough with Franz Xaver Emmanuel", the producer:

First prototype

Undeterred, Matts-Schwätzerle sneakily redesigned the prototype during an espresso break of his fellow team-members. It leaned to the other extreme by radically throwing out practically all of the non-essential elements:
Now it was Kamphoefner's turn. Potentially influenced by the Sunday family ritual of church followed by a pub-crawl, which he both had to attend from when he was five years old, he suggested two fresh design variants. Not really modernist, neither Kea nor Matts-Schwätzerle really fancied them:

Another, even less modernist design, scribled on the wrapper of a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte made by Matts-Schwätzerle's great-grandmother Franzi Xaverine Emmanuela, was the final straw that made the bucket overflow, causing a “furious discussion” (remembers Kea) among the team members about the general direction of the project:
Another modernist design proposal infiltrated by childhood memories

Only during that session, approaching the cliff of breakup over the fruitless progress, the team had one single inspired moment, and within minutes came up with the final design on the back of a napkin. The result: a classic modernist shape of timeless beauty inside and out.

Final design, exterior


Final design, interior 

Production at Matts-Schwätzerle facility in Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill, AU, is slated to begin with months. And while all three team members admit they are not rocket surgeons, they are elated they finally agreed on something that combines modernism, practicality, livability, portability and inflatability in one solid package. I'm sure it will be rather successful.

– Happy Easter to you!

Photos: boingboing, Vector, Interactivegame, Pfiff!, Inflatable World, Universität Kassel

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