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It's Tax Appeal Time – What You Should Know

“Should I appeal my tax assessment?”

As the April 1st tax appeal deadline approaches, that’s the question du jour.

Town-wide re-valuations are done every 5 to 10 years in an effort to fairly distribute the tax burden across all property owners according to the value of each property. However, sometimes the system fails. If your home was measured incorrectly or if an extra bathroom was inadvertently added into your assessment, you may be paying more than your fair share in real estate taxes. 

Over-assessment can also be the result of a neighborhood that declines in value relative to other neighborhoods, or a shift in buyer preference for a certain style of house. If you believe you’ve been assessed unfairly, you have the opportunity to challenge your assessment, and this is especially important to do if you’re planning on listing your house soon.

According to Jeffrey Otteau, one of New Jersey’s most respected appraisers, there’s not only a direct relationship between an over-assessed house and its selling price, there’s even a rule-of-thumb calculation you can apply to determine how much it will affect your selling price.

Otteau says that when selling, a home’s value is reduced by 7.5 times the excess valuation. So, for example, if most of the 1,800 SF, 2-Bath houses in the area have yearly taxes of $16,000 and the taxes on your 1,800 SF, 2-Bath house are $18,000, all other things being equal, that additional $2,000 translates to a $15,000 reduction in value in the marketplace.

The key in evaluating your tax burden is understanding how your home – and assessed taxes – compare with similar homes/taxes. I’m always happy to meet with sellers a year (or more!) before they put their house on the market to determine whether it’s worthwhile to challenge their current tax assessment. Call or text: 973-809-5277  

Six Ways to Take a Prospective New Town for a Test Drive

You research the school system. You collect the train schedules. You drive around the neighborhood after an open house. 

Buying a house means buying into a community. So, of course, information about schools and transportation is important. However, a big part of what most of my clients are looking for is a particular vibe. And in my opinion, vibe needs to be evaluated firsthand. 

Here are my 6 favorite suggestions for taking a town for a test drive. Feel free to post your own in the comments!

1. Take a walk.

When you drive through town with an agent, they tend to take you through the nicest neighborhoods. So, if you’re looking at a particular house, in addition to circling the neighborhood, google directions to a nearby restaurant or school – and walk to it. Beyond getting a feel for the friendliness of fellow pedestrians, you’ll notice things that you’d never have access to inside your car.

2. Hang around after school.

Whether it’s the vibe of the school's neighborhood, or what your new neighborhood feels like when school gets out, you’ll get plenty of information about what your child’s after-school experience may be like. 

3. Take an exercise class.

Or a yoga class. Or visit the library. Or a church. Or a temple. Or the senior center. If there are things you love to do, take the opportunity to see what it’s like to do them in a new town. Obviously, walking into the Montclair YMCA was a different experience the first time I showed up there decades ago than it is now. I didn’t know anyone and, in fact, I got lost. But even then, the Y had an easy, welcoming vibe that made me feel instantly comfortable.

4. Go to the grocery store.

I spent a lot of time in the supermarket when I was raising my family. If that sounds like you, pop in and see what your home-away-from-home will feel like. Montclair has plenty of grocery options – I’m happy to guide clients to the 2 or 3 destinations that seem most right for them.

5. Take the train (or bus) in and out of town.

I have clients who do this as a matter of course – executing their entire door-to-door commute from a prospective neighborhood to experience it in real time -- and also to see what it will feel like. 

6. Check out the Saturday night scene.

Montclair has always been something of an arts and entertainment hub, a destination for people all over northern New Jersey. But there’s no better way to know if it will suit your own entertainment needs (or, at least, many of them) than having a meal, getting a drink, catching a movie, listening to a band. Meander down Bloomfield Avenue and see what speaks to you. There are plenty of restaurant options where reservations are not required.

Getting a clear feel for a town or a neighborhood helps buyers become more confident in their purchase. I regularly tell clients: You can always change a kitchen or an entryway – but you can’t change what a town feels like on a cool spring morning or after a quiet snow.

To me, taking a town for a test drive provides a buyer with more options. You may read things about Montclair or Glenridge or South Orange or Verona, but until you experience the town’s vibe, you won’t have information from the most reliable source: you. 

If you want some more ideas about how to test drive a town, don’t hesitate to call me: 973-809-5277

Photo: Montclair YMCA Large Pool 

Where a House Sits – Pros and Cons

Location, location, location - that old adage about the three most important aspects of a house. I always think of the first “location" as the town and the second “location” as the neighborhood within the town. I refer to both a lot when I talk about walkability – how close a home is to restaurants, errands, parks, public transportation. However, there’s a whole other conversation I have with my clients, which many buyers tend to pay less attention to.

Siting. This, to me, the third “location” -- where the home sits on the property and in relationship to its surroundings. 

Montclair, Glen Ridge, Maplewood and South Orange are all towns with big, grand homes on spacious lots as well as smaller homes on blocks that have more of a “neighborhoody" feel. Neither is better or worse, but each has its pros and cons.

Houses with a deep front yard

These homes often have a lot of curb appeal. However, if a house is set back on the property with a big front yard, sometimes that means you don’t have much backyard. If you have young children, that may mean your primary play area is out front. Also, that extra privacy from being far off the street may mean you have to make more of an effort to interact with neighbors. 

Houses that sit close to the curb

These towns are known for their beautiful trees, so even homes with a short setback and not much front yard still exude a lot of charm. Many find that this type of house siting makes it easier to interact with neighbors. I always find that houses with short front yards feel approachable and friendly. However, houses close to the curb can feel less “private” and more affected by street noise. 

Homes that sit far apart

If there seems to be a lot of space between two houses, be sure to ask whether it’s an empty lot or a double lot; you don’t want to move in to a house only to discover the lot next door has been subdivided and sold and that a new house is being built outside your bedroom window.

Homes that have close neighbors

Some clients coming from the city prefer to have neighbors VERY close by; it feels more like the brownstone or apartment they just left. Many believe the closeness of houses make for a stronger neighborhood community. However, if those neighbors are noisy – especially in summer when windows are open – you may have a challenge on your hands. Also, when houses sit close together, you may feel more “affected” by your neighbor’s landscaping or other exterior aesthetic choices. 

Houses on a corner

Corner homes can feel “exposed,” but they may actually offer more privacy as you have only one next-door-neighbor. The downside is, if the town has sidewalks, corner properties have more than most other houses, and all of it is the owner’s responsibility, which can feel like a lot when it’s time to shovel snow. 

Houses on a hill

Montclair and South Orange are partially situated on a mountain. (It actually took me a while to make the connection between that fact and the street names in Montclair: Valley, North Mountain, Upper Mountain, Highland.) If your house is on a sloping property, you’ll have to deal with managing rainwater. On the upside, the views from homes on the mountain can be spectacular; an elevated deck can leave you feeling like you’re living in the trees.

I’ve lived in three different homes in Montclair and have personally experienced practically every one of these “situations.” If you want to talk pros and cons – or if you want to take a look at the array of homes available – I’m always ready: 973-809-5277 

5 Things To Look For If You're Moving From The City

Montclair has been a popular destination for people coming from the city – New York City or any city – for a long time. But unlike most commuter suburbs, Montclair offers certain benefits that make the transition very easy.

Here are the top 5 things most of my clients are looking for – and find! – when moving from a big city to a suburb.

1. Train and Bus Lines into the Nearest City 

People who work in New York City have access to inbound and outbound trains throughout the day from 7 different stations. There are also trains to Hoboken. Two bus lines can take you to Port Authority almost hourly, with pick-ups throughout town. Access to both train and bus means even the occasional transit delay (sadly, that’s a reality) can sometimes be averted by simply going for a bus rather than a train, or vice versa. 

2. Public Transportation Options in Town

Montclair is a very walkable suburb, however, sometimes traveling by foot is not ideal. A bus runs through town, however most people rely on Uber, Lyft or local cabs if they don’t want to drive. In fact, I know a few people who have downsized to a single car for the family and now rely on bikes or cabs rather than pay insurance for a second car. 

3. Able to Walk to Restaurants

I would estimate that half the homes in town are within a 15-minute walk to a restaurant. That’s because there are so many distinct shopping hubs throughout Montclair. There are parts of town where walking is easier, and that’s part of the beauty of this town: there are plenty of choices for people who want a completely walkable lifestyle as well as for people who crave a bit more seclusion. 

4. Nearby Entertainment and Cultural Events 

There is always something to do here. There’s a big music scene -- from Outpost in the Burbs shows to Jazz at Trumpets, from concerts at the Wellmont to bar bands at Tierney’s. There’s a great movie theater and additional screenings from Montclair Film. There are live performances – local theater, opera, improv, and Montclair State University's Peak Performances series, which offer world renown dance and music in an intimate setting. Yogi Berra Stadium is also located at the college if you want to catch a baseball game. And the public library hosts a lecture series that’s often standing room only. All in town!

5. Close Enough for Friends to Visit

We are only 12 miles (as the crow flies) from midtown. Friends can take the bus out on weekends (or the train to Bay Street), or they can drive from most of Manhattan in under an hour. My New York friends still consider a trip out here like “going to the country.”

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  1. PREETHAM on

    Montclair is such a vibrant suburb and for people who move from NYC, they are not going to miss the city vibe. Having lived here for 4 years now, I totally agree with Lina Panza's blog post.

    What To Do After You Sell Your Big House

    When my oldest kids started college, I put my big house on the market. Yes, they’d be coming back for summers and breaks, but we just didn’t need that space anymore. I opted for a smaller house in the same town (practically in the same neighborhood), but there are plenty of choices if you’re ready to down-size. 

    Here are some of my favorite:

    RENT SHORT-TERM. If it’s a seller’s market, take a short-term approach. Put your house up when the market is in your favor and simply rent somewhere until you figure out what you want to do long term. Renting allows you to get a more realistic sense of exactly how much space your family requires and also gives you time to reflect on things like outdoor space or garage space, two amenities you may change your opinion about if you do without for a few seasons.

    RENT LONG-TERM. Some of my clients have always wanted a home at the beach or in the mountains but keeping up their big house prevented them from buying a second home. Renting a smaller home or apartment in the area can free up some money for a down-payment on that place in Woodstock. Even if your new rent is close to your old mortgage payment, there is often plenty of savings when you no longer have to maintain your big house.

    BUY A CONDO IN THE AREA. Many down-sizers have enough equity in their house to buy a condo for cash, leaving only the monthly property taxes and association fees. Condo owners usually enjoy far fewer home maintenance fees with shared services like lawn care, snow removal. Many developments have clubhouses or a swimming pool for entertaining. There are also several new-ish Adult Only communities nearby that cater to empty nesters with an on-site social coordinator and plenty of stuff to do (most including wine!).

    BUY A SMALL HOUSE IN A NEIGHBORING TOWN. I know I sing the praises of Montclair’s walkability until I’m blue in the face, but there are plenty of other towns that offer a similar NYC commute and are walkable to restaurants and shopping. The houses are typically less expensive, the taxes are less, and you’re still a 10-minute drive from all your favorite places to go. It’s worth taking a look at what your money can buy right around the corner!

    BUY A MULTI-FAMILY HOME. One of my client’s just did this as soon as his son graduated college. His portion of the house was a good size, he still had a yard and garage, and he now has income. Few people realize that close to 40 percent of Montclair residents are renters, a fact that is not evident because many of the rentals look like single family homes from the street. If you are loathe to give up the charm of an older house, you may not have to! Plus, sometimes you can even end up with a sweet front porch. 

    I’d love to help you figure out your best down-sizing option – or anything else you may want to talk through. Give me a call: 973-809-5277

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    Shopping (on foot) In Montclair

    At the end of this summer, we moved to the heart of “Uptown.” By “we,” I mean Keller Williams Real Estate, and by “Uptown,” I mean the northernmost shopping district of Montclair’s five retail hubs.

    My office used to be on the edge of town – a perfectly nice place, but not nearly as walkable as most of Montclair tends to be. I was excited to move, not only because I would be able to easily walk to work, but mainly because I love being in a neighborhood where I can get most of my errands done – including my holiday shopping -- without getting in my car. 

    Our big, bright office space is steps away from Valley Road with its lovely boutiques like Jaffa Gems and Ampersand for home décor or gifts, and Marcel’s or Jackie’s for breakfast or lunch. There’s a Gap on one corner and a Williams Sonoma on the other. Pizza, bagels, coffee, jewelry, clothing, office supplies, sushi or ice-cream – it’s all a two-minute walk. There’s a toy store, a hardware store, a shop to buy scented soaps and another to buy baby gifts. I often stop at Gus’s for fresh fish and pop across the street for a bottle of wine on my way home. 

    And Montclair’s other retail hubs are just as vital, with new, fun shops popping up among older, beloved Montclair institutions.  

    The point is this: living and working in an environment where a car can be optional is a wonderful experience. You can spend time with your partner or your children walking and talking. When shopping is close to home, it feels easier to wander in and explore. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many local shop owners in this natural, unhurried way and I can say that few things make you feel part of a community more than walking into a store and being greeted by name.  

    If you want to stop by our new home, we’re at 237 Lorraine Ave. The entrance is in the back, and there’s a covered bike rack back there, too. We’re steps away from the bus and the train, but if you need to drive, no worries – we have plenty of parking behind the building. 

    Santa Claus is Coming to Montclair

    One of the best things about living in a walkable suburb is getting visitors at your door throughout the year. 

    A favorite Montclair tradition is the Police Department’s Santa visit. On a night in early December, kids around town are treated to a visit from Santa and his entourage of decorated police and ambulance vehicles decked out in lights and blasting holiday music. Not only will Santa arrive at your door but his elves and reindeer and assorted other helpers come too. You can either sign up to have a personal visit or sign up with neighbors and end up with a seemingly impromptu hot chocolate block party.

    How do you get on that ‘nice’ list? You have to register in advance, drop off a wrapped gift for your recipient and a gift to donate for every gift your are giving at the Montclair Police Department by November 30th.

        

    With the holidays rapidly approaching, it’s a good time to celebrate community and give back at the same time.

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      Park Slope to Montclair – It's so much easier to play with our kids! 

      “Miro and I just moved from an upper duplex in Park Slope to Montclair Avenue last July. We wanted more space for ourselves and our two young daughters – especially outdoor space. My sister has lived in Montclair for the last four years and whenever we’d come to visit, she really talked the place up. So, after researching a few different towns in the area, we decided to start looking here. One of the many things I loved about Montclair was how it reminded me of the Pittsburgh suburb I grew up in – beautiful old houses and lots of trees.

      Neither of us grew up in a city, so moving to a suburb was not a hard choice, but there were specific things we were looking for. Good public schools. Someplace where we could walk to parks and restaurants. And the most non-negotiable requirement – a maximum 75-minute door-to-door commute to Miro’s job in the Flatiron District. 

      We learned about Lina from her Walkable Suburb site. After one phone call, we could tell she was very level-headed and knew her stuff – not only about the area but about how houses work. She let us know exactly what to expect when buying an old house, specifically, what types of post-purchase expenses we might encounter. Lina was unbelievably knowledgeable about how to restore the chimney of one house we looked at, providing a level of detail as if she were the contractor. 

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      She also prepared us for Halloween on Montclair Avenue – at least as much as anyone could have. ‘Just to let you know, you’ll be giving out a LOT of candy!’ she said. The people we bought the house from left us a stipend of 300 pieces of candy and, because of Lina’s advice, we bought another 1200 pieces. Still, we ran out by 7 p.m., but our girls had a blast handing out candy on the porch.

      There have also been a few surprises that we hadn’t anticipated. For example, how much easier it is to play with the kids when you can just run out into a backyard. But also, how many awesome playgrounds are around, many strollable from the house. We found a great preschool that’s also an easy stroll. And we found a favorite restaurant – Turtle and Wolf -- that’s easy to walk to. We also found that Montclair’s BYOB culture has brought our restaurant tabs way down. 

      And then there’s the leaves.

      One day, we woke up and autumn had happened! It was spectacular – like a crazy technicolor brochure for fall. It seems like a little thing, but when you’re coming home from the city, it’s really great to have your own leaves to jump into.”

      --Jeremy, new Montclair resident

      Happy Halloween

      What's the one day of the year when it seems almost everyone is out walking door to door? Halloween! Walkable towns like Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield and Maplewood are made for this activity. But if trick-or-treat is not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the spooky season.

      Friday October 26th - 6-9 PM  Gardens Aglow at the Presby Iris Garden

      Saturday October 27th - 2-4 1st Annual Zombie Walk @ East Side Mags

      Sunday October 28th- 1:30 Rosedale Cemetery Tour

      7:00 PM - Film on the Lawn at St. Luke's Episcopal Church - "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"

      Wed October 31st  4:00-7:00 Montclair Police Department on Valley & Bloomfield Ave, rear parking lot 2nd Annual Trunk or Treat.

      My First Visit to Cedar Grove Park

      The other day, a friend invited me to join her on a walk in Cedar Grove Park, a beautiful expanse that I’d passed once while driving but hadn’t yet made time to visit. 

      We pulled into the ample parking lot, made a quick stop in the immaculate restroom, wandered over to the pristine bocce ball courts and playground, and all I could think was: Why isn’t anyone here?

      We were not completely alone. There were a few runners and a mom with her toddler on the swings. But if we’d been at Brookdale Park on this sunny morning, there would have been people everywhere. True, it was a weekday and the park is relatively new – only just completed in 2016 – but I started wondering how long it takes a public space like this one, slightly tucked away as it is, to become a regular destination. I lived across from Montclair’s Edgemont Park when its tired, old original playground was renovated into the kid magnet it has become. I remember it taking a little while for people to discover it and make it part of their lives.

      How long? I don’t recall. But, like Edgemont, there are plenty of reasons to check Essex County's newest park out sooner, rather than later.

      The park sits on either side of Fairview Avenue, which intersects Bloomfield Ave in Verona. On the east side: bocce ball courts, all-access playground, and club house – all brand new and all designed with plenty of shaded areas to sit. Beyond the parking lot (also on the east side) there’s a paved walking path that loops down and around a lovely landscaped hill. 

      On the west side of Fairview Avenue is another walking path that meanders over foot bridges and past little “workout stations.” There’s even a place to enter the woods – we hiked for about 10 minutes on the wide dirt trail up to the top of the hill before turning back. We probably could have gone on for an hour, but we didn’t have the time. 

      Although Cedar Grove Park is not a park that many can walk to, it's a wonderful environment to walk in. I also noticed a sign for a Farmer’s Market - Tuesdays from 10am - 3pm.! If you’re a runner, cyclist, or just like being outdoors, I encourage you to stop by. I predict that, like me, your first visit to Cedar Grove Park will certainly not be your last. 

       

      Cedar Grove Park

      199 Fairview Avenue

      Cedar Grove, NJ