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Blog :: 2009

Find Your Community Walkability Rating

What Is Your Community Walkability Score?


walking in Montclair neighborhood

walking in Montclair neighborhood


I'm a big fan of the rating website,, but its algorithm relies mostly on the proximity of a house to stores and community resources.  But to find walkability rating, it's not just about distance -- it's also about the quality and ease of the walk.  Factors like wide sidewalks, shade trees, good lighting and flat topography matter a great deal in determining a walkability rating.  I downloaded this walkability checklist from and walked through my own Watchung Plaza neighborhood in Montclair.

Here's what I found, both good and bad.

What makes Montclair a Walkable Community?


Montclair NJ

walking in Montclair neighborhood


  • Lot's of large trees to keep the sun off your back
  • Most streets not to wide to cross
  • Most streets have sidewalks
  • Streets and sidewalks are free of litter and debris
  • No loose dogs
  • Curb cuts in many sidewalks (for strollers and wheelchairs)
  • Flat heading East toward the train station

Things to Improve...

  • Many sidewalks uneven and cracked from tree roots
  • Spotty lighting - some areas well lit, others not so much.
  • Steep hill heading West toward the "Mont" of Montclair
  • Tricky intersection at Park St. and Watchung Ave

How walkable is your neighborhood?  Download the checklist and let me know.

Visions of Granite Danced in My Head

Granite counters and stainless steel appliances sell houses in MontclairWe have a saying among real estate agents that  "Kitchens sell houses." At the mere mention of the words "granite" or "stainless steel," buyers flock to a new listing, imagining themselves preparing home-cooked meals for the family or having friends gather around the "island" while the host prepares a gourmet meal and offers a little kitchen theater.

So powerful is the pull of the granite kitchen that it can compensate for other defects in the house such as small bedrooms or too few bathrooms.  For many, the granite kitchen has become a symbol of the good life and of good times.  There's just something about family, friends, home, and kitchen that is inextricably tied together - despite our love of take-out.

Check out some of these Montclair homes for sale, and see if these kitchens match your ideals.

Do all of us have a strong interest or skill in cooking? No.  But even those among us who have never flambéed or sautéed love a great kitchen. Friend and fellow Montclair resident, Alma Schneider has even built a business around the incongruity between having a fab kitchen but not knowing how to use it.  "Overcoming Obstacles to Cooking" is the theme of her blog "Take Back The Kitchen." Here she offers tips, coaching packages, and classes.

Me, I'm still living with butcher block counters in my circa 1925 kitchen, albeit with new appliances, hoping that my friends and family will forgive my sin of missing granite.  What does your kitchen look like?

Shopping in Montclair: Anthropologie

iStock_000000232657XSmallAnthropologie--the big retailer with modern urban style clothing and home goods--has opened its doors in Montclair in time for the holiday shopping season.  I'm sure there is some grumbling as people roll their eyes at $200 corduroy pants and worry that chain stores will threaten the character of our very indie town.  Me, I welcome Anthroplogie here.  I think ultimately we need a few William Sonomas and Gaps to anchor the smaller retail offerings of our town and keep it vibrant and walkable.  Unlike mom and pop shops, the big chain stores have national funding to stay open seven days a week and later in to the evening.  Anthropologie is open late--until 9 pm at night--my own preferred shopping time.

There's a positive ripple effect.  With longer store hours people walk in the streets until later, and they're more likely to go get some dinner or a coffee on Church Street after they've browsed (or shopped in the store).    Anthropologie gives outsiders another reason to bypass the mall and come visit Montclair, and maybe pop into Semplice or the Montclair Book Center.

What's interesting is that more and more big retail stores want to be located in a walkable downtown like ours.  For the first time in forty years, the trend is shifting away from malls.  People want to shop locally.  They don't want to get on a highway to buy a pair of jeans or that perfect gift.

This holiday season you'll find me at the sale rack sometime around 8:30 pm.  Anthropologie is located at the corner of Church Street and Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair.

Black Friday in Real Estate

Buying or selling a house during the holidays

Well, it's Black Friday and many brave souls are trying to get a jump on their Christmas shopping, but I'd guess that today quite a few folks are shopping not for a new Blu-ray but for a new house.  November and December are typically the quietest months in real estate because housing inventory drops and people put their home-buying efforts on the back burner while they busy themselves with holiday preparations.  But this year is different due to the extension of the home-buyer tax credit.  Numbers in Montclair are promising so far for this November: 22 houses have gone under contract this month as compared to only 11 for this time period last year.

In order to have a contract in place by the qualification deadline of April 30th, 2010, serious home buyers know that there's no time to waste.  December will be a critical month for buyers to check out different towns and narrow down searches so that when the right house comes on the market they will be ready to pounce.  Also, many sellers have opted to keep their homes on the market during the holidays because of the extra surge of home buyers as well as to take advantage of the sparkle and magic that holiday decorations can lend to a house.

Homebuyer tax credit extended and expanded

Both the House and the Senate have passed an unemployment insurance bill, which includes an amendment that expands and extends the tax credit.  That bill will be sent to President Obama for his signature in the next day or so.  This is a major victory for consumers and the housing economy.

The tax credit for first time buyers has been extended to April 30th, 2010 and remains at $8000 for marrieds and $4000 for single filers.  However, the income limit has been raised to $125,000 for singles and $225,000 for marrieds. This makes the tax credit more compelling for home buyers and sellers in Montclair, where the median home price hovers around $750,000, as well as for many other towns in Essex County.

The tax credit has also been extended to current homeowners who have lived in their homes as a primary residence for 5 of the last 8 years. For current homeowners, the credit is $6500 for marrieds and $3200 for singles.  Purchase must be for a house that is $800,000 or less.  Click here for a chart summarizing the differences between the previous and new version of the tax credit.

Buy day and buy night: Montclair shops open late on Thurdays

I'm not a big mall person.  The whole ordeal of driving 20 minutes only to look for parking for another 20 minutes has turned me off.  These days I'm shopping locally in Montclair, and starting today, Oct 15th, 50 plus stores will keep their doors open until at least 8 pm.  Some of my personal favorites are: Terra for their fair trade merchandise and homemade goodies, semplice for their hip take on home furnishings and the new Anthropologie for their inspiring retro-handmade combinations.

Here's a list of all the stores that are extending their hours this holiday season:

Accents With Flowers

Afro-Brazilian Cultural Center of NJ


Amanti Vino

American Sampler


Artistic Illuminations of Montclair

Aunt Jean's Toys & Treats

Blu Lotus

Bobbi Brown Studio

Buds For You


Chez Renee

Cisco Station


Creative Endeavors

Culture Couture


Dulce Candy Boutique

Euro Glass Art

Essex Fine Arts Gallery

Fleet Feet

Four Eyes & Ears

Gallery 51

Gallery Loupe

Go Lightly

Glenridge Taekwon-do

Hampton House


Irish & More

Jerry's Antiques


Little Cricket

Makeready Press

Modern Yarn

Montclair Antique Center

Montclair Art Museum

Montclair Pet & Feed

Nest & Company

O Soleil

Parlor Hair Salon

People Store

Phil Cantor Photography


Sahana Spa

Salon Organic




Tory Janes

Urban Outfitters

The Woodhouse Spa


Think Twice Before Buying a House Next to a Gas Station

Mixed use neighborhoodI'm a fan of mixed use.  Mixed use is the practice of allowing different types of buildings to coexist in a single neighborhood - for example, residential space next to/on top of restaurants and businesses.   By adding vitality and activity to a neighborhood, mixed use benefits a community because residents are able to walk to things that they need, like stores, work, church and transit. But there are certain land uses that are best kept away from the rest of the neighborhood - gas stations among them.  In Montclair, two former gas station sites continue to undergo remediation for chemical contamination twenty years after they were first tested.   Both of the locations, in Upper Montclair on Valley Road and on Orange Road in the South End are near houses, condominiums and small businesses. Who needs to walk to a gas station anyway?

...But Zillow says it's worth $573,000

Many real estate agents hate Zillow.   But not for the reason you think.  When Zillow was launched a couple of years ago the word on the street was that agents would lose their usefulness in helping sellers determine their home's value.  That turns out to be far from the truth--which is that agents have to spend an awful lot of time explaining Zillow's  inaccuracies.

Here's the beef.  Zillow is a huge aggregator of data.  They use info uploaded by real estate agents (not always accurate), tax assessment data and comparable sales.  Then use a proprietary formula to calculate a "Zestimate."  But they have no way of accounting for hyper local conditions, for example, a house that has not been updated for 50 years. Or a house that backs up to a gas station.  Or a house with a fabulous view (that the house next door may not have because it's blocked by trees).  These are factors that only a human being with local expertise can work in to the house value equation. In fact Zillow's self-reported level of accuracy in the Northern New Jersey Market is a median error of about 12 %.

In other words, half the houses sell for within 12% of its Zestimate.  And the other half do not.

Only 25% of homes sold for within 5% of the Zillow estimate.  That means you can count on Zillow to be really accurate only about a quarter of the time!

When Zillow is wrong, it can be really wrong. Take this house in Glen Ridge which recently sold for 380,000.  Zillow's estimate was 573,000.  Can you imagine the agent trying to convince the seller that despite what Zillow says the house is actually worth almost 200,000 less?  Here's what Zillow didn't know about this house.  It needed extensive repair and was owned by a bank that wanted to get rid of it as fast as possible.

The take away is that no computer can substitute for a careful assessment by a qualified human.  While Zillow may work well for communities that have a very homogeneous stock of houses (think Levittown), it does not work as well for towns like Montclair and Glen Ridge where a two million dollar home is often a block or two away from a four hundred thousand dollar home.

On the bright side--isn't it good to know that human experience and judgment still beat out the computer?

Living on the grid - not the cul-de-sac

When I walk to Watchung Plaza from my Montclair home, I take a short route  through an interconnected grid of streets and through a small park.  I wave to my neighbor on the way.  I stop for a brief minute in the park to chat with a friend who's on her way home from work (she's just gotten off the 5:31 train from Manhattan).  It's social.  It's interactive.  It's exercise.  It's green.

On the other hand, it's very difficult to walk to the train station, or the corner store to get milk in a town that is laid out in a branching street pattern with a series of dead-ends -aka cul-de-sacs- feeding in to a main artery. In these configurations, you can be a stone's throw from your destination, but have to travel a mile to get there.  This may be a satisfactory layout for the car but not for the pedestrian or bike rider.

Watch this very clever video from the Congress for New Urbanism and you'll see what I mean...


Should I use an real estate agent for a rental? Check out this Maplewood scam...

As you may or may not know, rental transactions are a marginal business for real estate agents.  They require many hours, uncertain payoff and a very small commission.  However, many agents handle rentals with the knowledge that renters often become buyers at a later date and therefore view it as an investment in a relationship rather than a source of revenue.

It is typical in rental transactions for the tenant to pay the commission or fee (although occasionally, the landlord will pay if the there is much competition or if the property is difficult to rent).  Many prospective tenants look for ways to avoid  the fee - who doesn't want to save a buck, right?  My approach has always been to tell my rental  clients about the many ways to rent without paying a commission.  I figure that my good advice is as valuable to the relationship as anything else.  Here are my strategies for the D-I-Y renter:

  • Knock on the door of the superintendent  in large rental buildings.
  • Call the management company of rental buildings, usually listed in the lobby.
  • Drive around looking for "For Rent" signs put out by the owner or manager.

If you have more time than money, these strategies may work well for you.  One caveat for craigslist : Be certain that you are dealing with the owner/landlord or a bonafide agent for the landlord.  In this recent craigslist post, a person posing as the owner of a Maplewood NJ house has advertised it for rent (at a below market-rate price).  The house is not, in fact for rentbut it is for sale.

"Hello      I can see you are interested in the ad I have pasted, I am currently in West Africa where I work as a volunteer with the RAFIKI FOUNDATION,here is the site for more detail about why I am here in Africa.( So I need a tenant to take care of it but since  I am out of the state now, I have received some proposals regarding the rent because it is located in a very good area of Maplewood, but I still have to make sure it is rented out to someone who can take good care of it. It includes facilities such as water and heat laundry facilities,  air condition, internet and telephone access and a car park and other necessary facilities, also comes with trash collection,pets are allowed as well as long as they are not destructive. so if you know you are capable of the task, get back to me so that I can provide you with some questions that I would want you to answer.below is the location.  101 Parker Ave, Maplewood, NJ."

Sounds vaguely like the Nigerian prince scam.  Renter beware.


  1. Austin on

    I just got the exact, word for word, response for a rental in Florida. I was looking to see if it was a scam. It is clear that it is now. Stay away. I certainly will. What was incredible for me was that the house actually existed. You can visit the "supposed" rental and it DOES have a sign in the yard. They must prey on renter's and rentee's
    • D. DeMattia on

      I just got the email from Robert Mock (supposedly), telling me to send $1400 to him in west Africa where he is volunteering for the Rafiki Foundation. I suspected the ad was odd, so I went looking. The exact same wording was used for a home here in Leesburg, the for sale sign out front. They are using a home that is for sale, and use the name of the owner too. Thank you for having this on the web...
      • RENT a CAR on

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