Property Assessment, Zestimates® and The Value of Your Home

The house across the street from my house is up for sale. I’m reminded of that every time I leave my driveway and I am curious to see how long it will take to sell and at what price. I’m curious not because I’m going to sell my house any time soon, but just because, well, I’m curious. It’s a rare homeowner who doesn’t regularly wonder what their home is worth.

This time of year, homeowners receive their third quarter property tax bills which contain the “actual” assessed value of their homes. Homeowners are billed during the first six months of the municipal fiscal year (July 1st through December 31st) based on the previous fiscal year’s assessed value. So how accurate is that new value?

The “actual” assessed value received in January 2018 is based on the home’s value on January 1st 2017, using sales that have occurred during the year 2016. That assessed value will remain in the public domain for the next 12 months. Meaning that the assessed value of a home in Massachusetts in December of 2018, is based on sales occurring between 24 and 36 months in the past, almost guaranteeing that the “actual” assessed value is not the correct market value.

Submitting the assessed value of a home is a required field in the multiple listing service so there is no getting away from that number even if it varies significantly from the current list price. Individual assessed values enter the public domain as a public record published by every town as required by law.

Good luck getting a local assessor to change that value; it does happen, but rarely. Local assessors are required by state law to assess property at its “full and fair” value. If you have ever talked to an assessor about the process they use, you will come away believing that they have done just that. Of course, time-frame is everything. What assessors are actually trying to do is establish a value for your home relative to your neighbor’s home and every other home in town. Most towns revalue properties every year, though they are only required to do so every three years. Year three values must be reviewed and certified by the state.

There is a dilemma in the residential real estate business that agents often are confronted with: The highest value ever published is the correct value of a property. This is almost never accurate. In an active, appreciating market, this value may be low; more often third-party providers of estimates like Zillow, or Redfin using proprietary algorithms, compete to provide value estimates that regularly vary from each other by tens of thousands of dollars.

These third-party providers admit that their estimates are not capable of directly taking into consideration the aesthetics of a home or its precise location and the accuracy of their estimates are off by 4 or 5 percent at best, which is not insignificant.

The estimates given for my house varies by $119,000 from one of these sites to another. So, you know where this is going. Why rely on an algorithm or some form of artificial intelligence when you can have real time intellect and the practical experience of a Resident Expertsm?

Residential Real Estate Just Got a Bit More Complicated

By: Victor Normand

We have a dynamic economy in the US influenced by consumers, business interests and government actions. Housing is one of the largest sectors of the economy, comprising about 15% of our Gross Domestic Product. Sometimes changes happen at a slower pace that are easy to comprehend and manage, other times not so much. As we enter the spring market, Homeowners, Buyers and Sellers have big changes to consider.

The two significant areas of concern are accelerating home values (appreciation averaging around 6% annually) and the effects of the recently passed tax reform. Both come to bear regardless of where you might be in the housing market, even if you have no plans to change your circumstance at all.

As home values appreciate, you will feel more wealthy and tempted to spend (credit card balances are on the rise) or borrow against the new higher home value using a home equity loan (HELOC), That’s the up side for many of us. The down side comes from government actions to share in your new-found wealth by potentially increasing your local property tax bill, and taking away your ability to deduct interest paid on your HELOC on your federal taxes. And of course, your home is not the only one now worth more money; the home you may be hoping to up-size or down-size into, has also gone up in value.

Coping with rising home values is not completely new and we all know strategies to deal with that. What IS new and different is the new tax reform law. Here, the economic dynamics is very personal. In fact, it is so unusual, the IRS is requiring that everyone who receives a paycheck complete a new expanded W-9 with their employer. We will all be turning to tax accountants and lawyers to help us sort things out. Full disclosure, I am neither so take what I have to say as merely conversation starters.

On the upside, if you do not own a home, you do have a spouse and children and receive a pay check for your work, you will be getting more cash in the envelope. Of course because you do not own a home, you have nothing to appreciate and some of your tax cuts are effectively off-set.

If you have plans to move to a state with low housing costs and no income tax, the new tax law will be very good to you unlike your neighbor who stays in the big house, has no children, a HELOC and draws a big salary.

So, the big question for someone interested in buying a home, comes down to the ability to afford the monthly payments, taking into consideration debt servicing and tax benefits or lack thereof, along with the overall impact of the new tax law as it provides and diminishes various benefits. And then there is the market appreciation factor to consider and its ability to make a purchase worthwhile in the long run.

None of the above takes into consideration all of the other really good reasons for living where you live in a home you love. Hard to put a price on that. As always, you do not need to be alone as you navigate the emerging and confusing real estate landscape. Talk to a Resident Expertsm at Acton Real Estate, they are there to help you sort things out.

Beware the Bubble

By: Victor Normand

My daughter Emily recently returned from a trip to Europe with a gift for her dad. It sits in front of me now as I write. A small brown paper bag with little holes punched on two sides so that the tulip bulbs inside can breathe, I assume they need to breathe. If this present of tulip bulbs and its long ago circumstances were described in a novel, its significance would eventually be revealed. Students of economic history may already have an idea of its place in this story.

Housing and real estate news have regularly of late, contained articles speculating on the growing signs of another housing bubble, especially in some red-hot markets. Not far from Acton, many communities closer to Boston and in Boston itself are seeing behaviors characteristic of a bubble in the making. Multiple and over-asking offers on homes are occurring with predictability, causing asking prices to rise ever higher.

The term” Bubble” dates back centuries and economic bubbles were occurring even before we had such a name for them. The term bubble derives from the prices paid for stocks that were inflated and expanded by nothing but air and are vulnerable to burst suddenly. Investors were most prone to be the victims of bursting bubbles though recent history has shown that ordinary home owners can get caught as well.

Bubbles form when the price of an asset, like a home, deviates substantially from its intrinsic value. Unfortunately, the intrinsic value is more often not revealed until after the bubble has burst. Most economists believe that bursting bubbles are a recurring feature of our modern economy. Models used to predict periods of irrational pricing rely on analyzing the expected stream of income or dividends, which is no help to buyers of single family homes.

The maddening aspect of bubble formation is that they present profit opportunities for investors who are in early and most importantly, out before the bubble bursts. These Ponzi scheme participants manage to find a chair before the music stops.

The key element for home buyers who are in the market during times of hyper price escalation is to expect a bubble. However, if the target property is in the right location, fits the buyers needs and desires and most importantly, occupancy is expected for an extended period of time, it’s right to make the buy. Home equity lost during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 has returned to most markets across the country. And here at Acton Real Estate, our “Resident Experts” have had lots of experience in all markets and can help you make those decisions.

As for the tulip bulbs Emily brought back from the Netherlands, in the Fall I will be planting them and thinking about how investors were paying a small fortune, as much as 5,500 guilders for a single bulb! That was enough to buy a small house in Amsterdam at the time. Tulip Mania of 1636-1637 is often said to be the first true economic bubble in history. As for my bulbs, I have assessed their intrinsic value based on having a loving memory of my daughter’s thoughtfulness.  Having said that, 5,500 guilders IS a lot of money!

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Buying or selling a home is a big decision for most of us. Some people labor over the decision, some not so much. As an objective observer and professional real estate Agent hired to assist in either process, this path to the end is often a long and winding road and can at times, defy logical explanation.

You would like to think that there always exists a set of rational facts that when gathered together and organized properly, lead to a logical conclusion. This should hold true whether you are making the decision or helping someone else through the decision making process. It is not always easy to gather those facts. Finding a sufficient body of knowledge surrounding any given decision is not so easy but nonetheless, we all believe that those relevant pieces of information exist.

As we move forward in the process, we often come across the eureka moment when we are sure of the right decision. Suddenly, all is clear and apparent so time to move forward, right? Or have our emotions interfered with the thought process and are we about to make an irrational choice?

Is it possible to strip away emotion so we can know what is TRULY the right thing to do? Is there someone out there, some clear thinking real estate agent strong enough to tell us if we are in fact making the wrong decision because of our emotional state?

If you struggle to strip away emotion from the process, you are likely to be struggling for a long time and not getting any closer to knowing the right course of action. Emotions by definition, are powerful feelings that existed in the human brain BEFORE the ability to reason came along. Scientists have observed that reason and emotion are linked in human behavior and now believe that both functions don’t just co-exist but rather are a singular process.

Neuroscientists studying brain chemistry have found that the decision making process requires both reason and emotion to work. Now you know for certain that Dr. Spock is not of this planet……if you ever doubted that. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes about a patient who underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor and lost the orbital frontal cortex which connects the rational frontal lobes with the emotional or limbic system and as a result, lost the ability to make decisions.

There is no sense trying to remove emotion from the decision making process, nor should we try less we unleash dire consequences. For clients and real estate agents alike, it’s important to recognize that the decision to buy or sell a home requires both a reasoned and emotional commitment. Even though life’s circumstance may point to a change in the size or location of a residence, it may be necessary to wait for the emotion connected to the change to catch up.

As professional real estate Agents, we commit ourselves to observing and listening to the needs and wants of clients. That process needs to include using emotional intelligence: the ability to identify and manage ones own emotions and the emotions of others. It may sound complicated, but it is after all, how we have evolved.

Unintended Consequences

By: Victor Normand

Alternative_EnergiesRecently the Massachusetts legislature passed and the Governor signed a new energy bill H4568, “An Act to promote energy diversity.” Most of the bill had to do with expanding the Commonwealth’s efforts to encourage alternative energy sources by using offshore wind farms and hydropower to generate electricity.

The bill keeps Massachusetts ahead of most other states in the areas of energy conservation and the use of alternative/clean energy sources. It is innovative in its advocacy of off shore wind power generation, challenging in its intent to double the amount of electric power generated by clean sources, and most importantly, it is proactive in its scope as it anticipates the not-to-distant future when local utilities will no longer have the use of nuclear power plants.

The Great and General court is to be commended for bringing forth such an important piece of legislation, hailed by most conservation and clean energy organizations as a very good bill. But not everyone is pleased with the law, most notably, the Mass Energy Consumer Alliance and many State Senators, including Senate President Stan Rosenberg who favored a more expansive bill.

One of the sections that passed in the Senate and was stricken from the legislation by the conference committee and not included in the final House version of the bill would have required that every home sold in the Commonwealth have an energy rating before it could be listed for sale and an energy audit before closing. This idea, similar in principal to gas mileage ratings on automobiles, has benefit for consumers, but major pitfalls for most homeowners.

Last year nearly 50,000 homes were sold in Massachusetts. Newer homes in many communities did come with a very sophisticated energy rating, called a HERS rating (Home Energy Rating System), but that was only 6% of the market. Even though implementation of the bill could have taken years, the broad scope of the rating requirement would be overwhelming.

Implementing new laws and regulations is nothing new to the real estate industry, lead paint certifications, home inspection notifications and closing disclosures for example. It is the significant unintended consequence such a rating and audit requirement would have on owners of older homes; homes more often concentrated in lower income, urban neighborhoods that would be problematic. Especially since Massachusetts has the second oldest housing stock in the country with a median age of 54 years.

There would be a cost associated with both the energy rating and the energy audit, and a time factor to get them accomplished to be considered. The burden to implement this would fall on the home seller, who would be under no obligation to make energy improvements.  But as a practical matter, home buyers would be looking to sellers to make identified improvements or in the alternative, to discount the sale price. Even home buyers who are in the market for an older home who are prepared to live with the added cost and discomfort of a less energy efficient house would be well advised to take advantage of the situation in preparation for the day when they will find themselves in the home sellers shoes.

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors lobbied to get the energy rating section of the bill removed. Their economic and social arguments were effective this time, but the advocates will be back next year. So, it is not enough to rely on lobbying efforts alone. Those of us in the real estate business need to continue to take energy conservation seriously by making sure potential home sellers include energy saving efforts on the list of important worthwhile home improvements. The unanimous vote of the State Senate in favor of this measure in the just ended legislative session is not insignificant.

Thinking About Real Estate

By: Victor Normand

PhiladelCampaignHessianMapAn article entitled, Obama After Dark: The Precious Hours Alone appeared recently in the New York Times.  It caught my attention because I imagined that the President of the United States probably gets very little quiet time. Turns out President Obama gets his quiet time late every evening, undisturbed in his private study where he stays up late before getting his usual five hours of sleep. It’s comforting to know that Mr. Obama does take time to be alone with his thoughts.

Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s first chief of staff said in the article “You can’t block out a half-hour and try to do it during the day. It’s too much in-coming.” He talked about how the self-described “night guy” uses late nights to put aside interruptions and focus.

Carving out a large block of time to think wasn’t always that hard to do. Consider how long it used to take to travel anywhere by foot or by horse and there you have your time to think. In the beginning of his book about John Adams, David McCullough describes the journey the delegate to the First Continental Congress took in 1774 from Braintree to Philadelphia on horseback. He traveled with others and made many stops along the way during the three-week trek (it would have taken only eight and a half days straight through). But he still had plenty of time to think; he wrote in his diary “I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate.”

Today, travel is speedy and hardly quiet, technology has seen to that. In fact not only does quiet not exist as a naturally occurring event during any part of our daily lives, but the demands we place on our weary brains during every waking hour is daunting. Even though our brains are not wired to multitask, we attempt it routinely and we expect it of others.

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT was recently quoted in Neuroscience Magazine on the subject of multitasking saying, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

So, what’s this talk about quiet time and thinking doing in a real estate blog? It just seems to me that in this DIY, HGTV, FSBO, Big Data world, we have managed to reduce home selling and home buying to a simple task to be mastered by technology alone without much need for quiet time or deep thinking.

Our lives are busy and most of us need to find quiet time first for our families and also, our professions. A house is not a commodity and a real estate transaction does not respond to a bar code. The principals in the deal will always have to make the big decisions, but much of the heavy lifting that must be done thoughtfully and efficiently when buying or selling a home, should be the quiet work of a Resident Expert(sm).

Yes in My Back Yard

By: Victor Normand

One sure way to lower the cost of housing for first time buyers and increase the supply of smaller homes for those who want smaller homes, including downsizers, is to suspend all zoning bylaws, along with building codes, energy codes, historic preservation restrictions and the like. That’s never going to happen, nor should it, but it’s easy to imagine what would happen if all you needed to do was start building on whatever piece of land was handy. Look around, there seems to be lots of places to build and without needing to get permits of any kind, we could start solving our housing shortages right away.

A movement in that direction exists. As reported recently by the PBS Newshour, an organization in the San Francisco Bay area that calls itself “Yes in MY Back Yard” (YIMBY) is advocating for government action to increase the supply of housing. The YIMBY folks are critical of both the political left and right for their respective positions on housing policy. Affordable housing advocates use the lengthy public approval process to slow and often kill new urban housing developments in their battle against gentrification. And property rights advocates on the political right, rely on restrictive zoning to keep out any housing development in suburban areas.

The YIMBY folks have taken the position that everyone should support the development of more housing at all levels, including luxury housing. And from an economic perspective, they would be correct. Increasing the supply of housing beyond demand will cause prices to fall. If the supply of larger more expensive homes exceeds demand, prices will fall enabling more buyers or renters from lower price points into that market, and so on, eventually effecting all buyers or renters.

But that is not the main focus of the movement. Their first point is that over-regulation has an effect on housing development at all levels; it adds cost and increases approval times which also is a cost. A careful review of all building and health and safety codes with a view toward eliminating antiquated sections or codes that have minimal benefit to society, will help to speed up the development process. Building codes address a broad spectrum of issues affecting safety and comfort, but they do not focus on creating an efficient system for housing development.

And there are often conflicting social goals that effect housing supply. Take the Community Preservation Act, which allows communities in Massachusetts to dedicate tax revenue to purchase land for conservation and also allows funding for affordable housing. The micro economic effect of these two undertakings is clearly beneficial to the community, but from a macro-economic perspective, every acre of land that is placed in conservation increases the price of every acre of land not in conservation. As the old saw goes, God is not making any more land.

The second area of concern is zoning. Unlike building codes which come under the jurisdiction of states, including Massachusetts, zoning is a local matter. Super local zoning, as it is referred to in the Newshour story, makes it hard to adapt to changing conditions. The link between where you live and where you work was weakened or in some cases, broken a long time ago. The imperative for one town to change zoning to allow for smaller homes and denser neighborhoods vanishes when the attitude is “not in my backyard”. Linking local aid to cities and towns based on regional economic growth and the demand for more housing might be an answer.

As the economy grows and populations increase, a smart look at all aspects of housing development needs to happen. At some point in all our lives we are all affected by the lack of choice in the available housing stock. Yes in My Back Yard should be a starting point for all of us as we work to solve our housing issues.

The Original Tiny House

By: Victor Normand

Thoreau's cabinEarlier this month, Sarah Hastings was unable to get town meeting in Hadley to approve a zoning bylaw amendment which would have made her Tiny House legal, so she and her 190 square foot house will be moving on, literally. The first Tiny House builder constructed his house on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Walden Pond without any complaints from the Town of Concord.  But it wasn’t long after Thoreau built his house in 1845 that the first zoning regulations in the nation were adopted in 1916 in New York City.

The new regulations were seen as a violation of the 14th amendment to the Constitution by some who felt zoning regulations unlawfully restricted property rights of individuals. Lower courts agreed but in 1926, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of zoning regulations. Today, the bylaw most commonly affecting Tiny Houses, including the Tiny House in Hadley prohibits more than one residence on a building lot, even though tiny usually means less than 400 square feet of living area and most of these houses are built on wheeled trailer beds.

Sarah, like most Tiny House proponents, seems undaunted. The “light touch on the earth” Sarah believes in, extends to her heart as well. Although 214 voters at town meeting voted against the amendment, 102 supported her and she believes her efforts have advanced the conversation on the subject of living small. And that, after all, is what Tiny Houses represent.

Sarah, who recently graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a double major in Architectural and Environmental Studies, built her house about a year ago and lived there until May 7th when the town made her vacate and cut power to the house. Thoreau only lived in his tiny house for two years, two months, and two days, never intending for it to be a long stay, though he was at the height of his creativity while he lived there. Similar to today’s Tiny House builders, Thoreau wanted his house to be both a philosophical and practical expression of his life.

He wanted the design to be a unique expression of his personality and probably would have objected to the availability of plans that may be purchased today for replica enthusiasts. He used recycled building materials and kept meticulous records of every penny spent on the project, for a total of $28.13; less than $3,000 in today’s money.

Walden, first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods, compresses his time in the tiny house to the four seasons of one year and is about his experiment in simple living, clearly the same theme captured by Sarah and her contemporaries. The five main attractions to life in Tiny House Nation include:

  • Aesthetics, both Sarah and Thoreau were concerned about having a design that expressed their individual sense of beauty;
  • Philosophy, living small in a space that denies materialism;
  • Environmental Impact, even as an existentialist, Thoreau probably never contemplated his carbon footprint, but he would have gotten it;
  • Efficiency, the reconstructed images of the Walden Pond cabin and the online video of Sarah’s house read efficiency;
  • Financial, Thoreau cleared the land and eventually gave the cabin to Emerson in exchange for building rights, grew crops in surplus and otherwise lived cheaply; Sarah’s finances are not public, but her millennial cohorts are having difficulty affording housing and besides, they would rather spend their money on travel then housing.

So, where is the Tiny House movement going? Not to Hadley, nor most any other community in most any other state. But there is no question the Tiny House is becoming one of the iconic images of our times and as Sarah says, the conversation carries on.

Feng Shui My House

By: Victor Normand

FlowersFeng Shui (pronounced Fung Shway) literally means wind-water. It’s origin in China goes back thousands of years and it is the study of how environments and objects affect people, wind and water being two of nature’s most sustaining forces. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese culture and Chinese goods were much admired in the West and minds were open to Feng Shui, though Feng Shui Masters needed to mold the tenets to fit the evidence based mindset of the American public. And today, practices like acupuncture and alternative medicine using Chinese herbs are becoming more widely accepted, so how can the real estate profession ignore the purported benefits of Feng Shui?

There can be no denying that we all strive for peace and tranquility in our lives in general and more particularly in where we live and work. Concepts like good light, balance and being uncluttered, resonate and appeal to people. We have all experienced joy when entering certain homes, even if we cannot articulate exactly why we feel good in those places. All of our senses are calibrated to like or dislike every presented stimuli in varying degree, whether it is a pleasant smell, a loud noise, a soft touch, bitter cold or a sunrise over a meadow; we feel a certain, predictable way and we share those emotions with all of humanity.

Feng Shui Masters will tell you that all objects have energy, called chi and this chi can be directed to improve luck and opportunity. The concepts like arranging homes and rooms to take advantage of good light, clearing clutter, furniture placement, using big plants and water features to enhance the environment and make spaces more pleasant even if you are not conscious of how these objects alter the flow of energy. Call it chi if you must, whatever is happening, is happening for the good.

Feng Shui practitioners may not even know they are Feng Shui Practitioners. They may be home stagers or kitchen designers who use their intuitive skills and by their designs, they are causing energy in objects to bring wealth and other forms of good luck. Sometime there are conflicts with this ancient practice. Water features have good Chi while toilet areas do not which was not a problem for centuries when toilets were not inside houses.  Today’s advice: always keep the lid down on your toilet.

Birth dates are important to your personal Feng Shui. Your birthday determines your Kua (pronounced kwah) number which leads to your auspicious direction. Placing yourself in this direction is recommended for sleeping, eating, and working among some of the more mentionable things we do every day. My auspicious number is 6. One Feng Shui advisor recommends that I create a wealth bowl out of porcelain and add gold-colored objects, semi-precious stones, and dirt from a wealthy person’s home, and faux diamonds to boost my success. I think I will stick with de-cluttering.

Even if you have trouble dealing with auspicious directions, you can benefit by Feng Shui. Why not hear what the Masters have to say about our houses and the places in them.  The interpretations of the best intuitions may be obtuse, but the results could be profound. By the way, The Resident Expertssm know something about Wind and Water, check out some tips from them.


“If your front door leads straight to the back of the house to a window or door, hang a round crystal in the hallway to disperse the good energy round the house – otherwise it marches straight out the back!” ~Frances Anderton

“If you hang a mirror in a foyer directly in front of the front door, all the good luck coming into the house will reflect right back out. So not a good decorating idea…​” ~Leslie Hogan


The Spring Market in the Digital Age

By: Victor Normand
Published: March 2016

Acton Real Estate now wears the “Crown of Excellence” for its overall relocation and referral accomplishments. Again this year, the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World ® ranked our company in five different measurable categories of performance at the annual conference held in Miami. Based on our accomplishments in 2015, Acton Real Estate bested 140 other independent real estate companies from across the country to take top honors in our class.

So what does relocation have to do with the spring market? Well, everyone likes the idea of buying a home in the spring and moving in during the summer, but it doesn’t always work out that way. People change jobs, retire, blend families and generally have many reasons to buy a home throughout the year, not just between April and June.

If you have planned ahead and followed the drill to prepare the house for sale this spring, you won’t be disappointed. Inventories are still below average, interest rates remain at historic lows and the economy continues to improve. Every indication points to a very strong real estate market this season. Use this checklist to see if you are actually ready:

  • Hire a real estate professional
  • Know the general condition of the market
  • Declutter/depersonalize
  • Consider a home inspection
  • Fix-up/remodel
  • Set a price

But don’t despair, all is not lost, people are buying homes all during the year, even more so in this digital, virtual age.

Taking buyer and seller behavior into consideration is a good thing, and an experienced Realtor can give you up-to-the-minute information on what those current mindsets are. If timing is everything to you, you might want to get Di Vincenzo’s best seller, Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That and Go There. Besides the benefits of listing during the spring market, some interesting factoids include:

The best month to make an offer on a house is January
The best day of the week to list a house is Thursday
The best day of the week to make an offer is Tuesday
The best time to tweet about the listing is 4:00PM

Trying to time a listing can be a challenge, but you don’t have to think you have made a big mistake if your timing is off. We know that buyers are looking at properties 24/7 all during the year. Just because they are not circling the block doesn’t mean they are not shopping. The combination of good weather and the start of school in September have created the traditional spring real estate market, but everything else about how, when, and where we shop for everything has radically changed.

When the time is right for you to list your property, bring in a professional for a consultation. The Resident Expertssm know all about timing and everything else involved in the home selling process.