Blog :: 07-2010

Victory Gardens In Montclair, Verona, and Glen Ridge

After closing on their bank-owned Colonial in Verona, one of the first "improvements" Bil and Ashli made was to add a vegetable garden to their backyard. They are predicting a prolific harvest of beans, onions, tomatoes, and Chinese sweet potatoes, of which they only eat the greens.

With 40,000 shade trees in Montclair, some gardeners have found that the backyard is just too shady to grow vegetables. A front yard flower and vegetable patch, however, is always an option, and can even replace the entire front lawn, giving the house a verdant and functional appeal. Robin of Glen Ridge has replaced her front lawn with a beautiful and bountiful combination of flowers and edibles. In her garden of Eden she grows rhubarb, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, squash, and herbs.

Montclair resident and food writer Laura has a front yard garden that is bordered by stones and integrates flowers and vegetables in the European fashion. This design, which runs along the path to her front door, works especially well because it welcomes visitors into her pleasant home and busy kitchen.

As for me, I have also established my raised-bed garden in the front yard, the only place that gets consistent sun.

Is the "Suburban Century" Over?

As reported in MinnPost.com, housing researcher John McIlwain has predicted that the period of suburban sprawl is over, and that more Americans will be pushing to live in more urban (one could even say "walkable") suburbs. "[A] combination of economic, demographic and regulatory trends over the next decade will create 'a new normal' in housing markets across the United States," as spurred by four key demographics: older Baby Boomers who move to more urban areas (even if not the "big city"), younger Boomers who will be tied to suburbs by the inability to sell their suburban homes because of the "soft market," the Millenials (children of Boomers) who are unable to find steady employment and thus will be forced to rent longer than earlier generations were expected to, and immigrants who need space for large families. The need will therefore be to make more of what currently exists rather than building further out.

We are already seeing some of this in north Jersey, where people who moved to towns like Montclair in the 1970s and 1980s are being priced out and moving instead to smaller towns like North Caldwell. North Caldwell has already begun to adapt to this new wave of Boomers. Other towns are starting to see demographic shifts due to a rise in immigrants. Many lower-middle-class residents are unable to live in the towns they work in, and some of the smaller suburbs are benefiting from this regular stream of homebuyers. Towns of all economic backgrounds will start to build up their "urban" centers, and those areas will in turn act as a draw to newcomers who want to live a more ecologically friendly life but not in a major city.

A good history of the American suburb is Columbia professor Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.

NJ's Tax Credit for Home Buyers? Not This Year.

Despite both the state Assembly and Senate voting to approve a tax credit for NJ home buyers, Gov. Christie vetoed the program on July 23. The NJ Home Buyer Tax Credit Program would have allowed home buyers could claim a credit of either $15,000 or 5% of the home purchase price over the course of three years following the home purchase in 2010. $75 million of the $100 million total to be allocated for the credit would have been for the purchase of new homes, to increase the state's construction as well as provide new jobs for construction workers. The other $25m was to go to those buying resales (older homes). Like the Cash-for-Clunkers program, the $100m total was to be distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.

Assemblymen and state Senators both pointed to the increase in jobs the credit would have brought, not just in the field of construction but also for home contractors, furniture makers, and all the industries involved in building and outfitting new houses. But Gov. Christie has long made it clear that he was against the credit, for the simple reason that the state does not have the money (yet he found $875m available for the embarrassing Xanadu shopping center in the Meadowlands...).

Making Suburbs More Walkable to Benefit Kids

A city school district in southern Texas has come up with a new way to combat childhood obesity that also makes their neighborhoods more walkable - by constructing new sidewalks, redesigning crosswalks, and adding bike racks to two dozen school campuses in Edinburg, TX, almost all of which are elementary schools. The team behind the construction plans hopes to make it easier and safer for Edinburg students to walk to school, and make Edinburg in general a healthier place for families to live. It's a state-funded project that comes from Michelle Obama's Let's Move program to help kids become more active and reduce obesity. Walkability benefits everyone!

Credit for Closers Now Extended Until Sept 30

The US Senate and House of Representatives have both voted to extend the deadline for closing on houses bought by April 30 from June 30 to September 30 in the hopes of allowing around 180,000 home buyers to complete their transactions and still qualify for the tax credit. While this does not extend the period in which home buyers could qualify for the credit itself, it does mean that people who began the deal process to buy a home by the end of April will be able to receive the credit despite not completing the deal by the due date of June 30, which is what many home buyers are facing due to the delay in mortgage processing that has resulted from the popularity of the tax credit.

The extended-deadline amendment to  HR 4213, the "American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010," was added onto an amendment that also extended unemployment benefits. It just barely passed before the June 30 deadline, and was written so that there will be no gap between June 30 and when it was signed by the President in early July. Home buyers will still have to show all the evidence that they entered a contract before April 30.

So what does this mean? The newly-passed amendment eases the stress of thousands of NJ home buyers. The credit has proven to be extremely popular, which has been great for home sales, but has also led to backups in the normal time it takes to qualify for a mortgage. In addition, many first-time buyers are buying homes in foreclosure or short sale and the additional paperwork is adding to the logjam. Those of you waiting for your mortgage to clear, there is at least the bright side of amazing rates to look forward to, the best recorded by Freddie Mac since 1971, when it started following interest rates. The average annual rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (20% down) is now 4.69%. Just a year ago the rate was 5.42%. Though the low rates are a sign of the shaky economy, they are a positive for those looking to buy homes or refinance existing mortgages. No wonder mortgage brokers are swamped!

Montclair in the News, But Not on Purpose

spies!

By this point most of us have heard about the Russian spy ring exposed by the federal government, and starring a pretend-couple who lived in Montclair. Montclair has since become a popular one-liner for those looking to poke fun at the rather ineffectual spies.

David Denby in his review of "Salt" in The New Yorker (8/2/10) writes,

What follows--assassination, threats to the American President, a possible missile strike on the Middle East--is perhaps a little overblown; the actual Russian sleepers who were recently booted out of the country seem to have mainly kept a close watch on top-secret goings on in Montclair, New Jersey.

Irina Aleksander of the New York Observer's Daily Transom notes that although Montclair has a lot going for it ("two movie theaters, three firehouses, 18 public tennis courts, 42 houses of worship and a population of about 38,000"), what it does not have are state secrets that would necessitate undercover Russians. What might the Russians have discovered instead?

1. That the Spring Pea Risotto at Raymond's is terrific.

2. That Stephen Colbert used to teach Sunday school at St. Cassian's Parish.

3. That the mayor of Montclair's main credential was that he used to own the town bike shop, according to James Percelay, a Montclair resident and TV producer.  

4. That Montclairians often talk about something called the 'Migration Route'-Upper West Side to Park Slope to Montclair.

5. That "people say we're 20 minutes west from New York, but really by any means it takes an hour," David Carr, New York Times columnist and longtime Montclair resident, suggested.

6. That there are so many Montclair residents who work in media that gifts at PTA fund-raisers are often tickets or backstage passes to David Letterman, The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live.

7. That the average Montclairian's schedule pivots around his or her kid's soccer schedule.

8. That "children's finals are often discussed in terms of 'We'-as in 'We have a final next week in math,'" according to Jim Axelrod, CBS News chief White House correspondent and Montclair resident.

9. That the Montclair mothers can often be seen in packs at the Starbucks on Church Street most mornings, wearing gym clothes and oversize diamond studs.

10. That there are two Whole Foods in the area, two miles apart.

The list goes on here, and includes the funny, silly, true, and exaggerated.

And of course, Montclair's own fifteen-year-old Jessie Gugig best encapsulated the strangeness of post-Cold War Russian spies living in Montclair of all places when she joked,

"They couldn't have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas." (New York Times)

Is Now the Best Time to Buy a House in Essex County?

Many first-time home buyers are intent on getting the best deal possible - not a bad strategy at all.  But many buyers forget that "the best deal" depends both on house price and mortgage rate (unless you're one of the lucky few who intend to pay all cash).  Remember this handy little equation: For every increase of 1 percentage point in mortgage rate you can afford 9% less in home price.  Let's do the math:  Say you're shopping for a $500,000 house in South Orange, NJ today but you feel that if you wait another 6 months the price might drop and you'll be able to get this same house for $475,000.  But what if in this same time period rates go from 4.75% to 5.75%?  Now you can only afford a $455,000 house so that $500,000 house that you thought would drop to $475,000 is now beyond your budget.  Bummer!  Although my crystal ball is in the shop at the moment, I would bet that interest rates will go up before home prices come down a whole lot.

The Washington Post reports that rates for a 30-year, 20%-down fixed-rate mortgage are the lowest they have ever been since Freddie Mac started following rate changes in 1971. As of last Friday, 6/25, the average rate is  4.69%, down from 4.75% the week before and more than 5% a year ago. Rates for a 15-year, fixed-rate mortgage have gone even lower, as low as 3.875% (compared to 4.89% last year).

The Post explains that mortgage rates are dropping

because investors, nervous about global economic stability and a volatile stock market, are plowing their money into mortgage securities backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, assets that investors perceive to be relatively safe bets.

But despite the great terms, consumers are becoming less and less interested in buying houses and applying for mortgages. The end of the tax credit in April combined with shaky employment and stagnating wages have led to a steep drop in home sales, and a corresponding decrease in mortgage applications. While some people are still in the market to buy a home, the numbers are reduced and the lower mortgage rates are not working to attract those on the fence. Michael Fratantoni, a vice president at the Mortgage Bankers Association, says that consumers at this point are used to fairly low mortgage rates, and do not therefore see the 4.69% rate as a reason to commit to a mortgage if they are not otherwise prepared to.

However, for those who already have mortgages, now is an excellent time to refinance, and indeed, refinancers make up a whopping two-thirds of all mortgage activity. For those who can, refinancing is a great option, but not everyone who wants to will be able to, given that house prices have dropped and their own credit history might not fit the more stringent qualifications mortgage lenders have adopted since the subprime mortgage crisis.

When You Move to Montclair, Claim Your Cash For Your Old Fridge!

The NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection has begun a new program in which old refrigerators or freezers that are not energy-efficient can be traded in for a $50 rebate. NJ residents must meet the criteria (listed here), which includes being a customer of a commercial, not municipal, electric utility company (Most Essex County residents use PSE&G). A new, more energy-efficient fridge or freezer can save you more than $100 a year on your electric bill, and is better for the environment. This handy little calculator tells you how much your current fridge or freezer costs to operate now, and how much you could save with one that qualified for Energy Star. Trading in your fridge or freezer is better for you and better for your town, and now comes with a $50 bonus! Why not?