MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Yard Tools for Your Money

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We just moved out of the city and are gearing up for our first yard work. How do we decide what type of lawnmower, hedge-trimmer, leaf blower, and other machines to buy? Our options include gas, plug-in and battery-powered.

A: Welcome to suburbia! As you begin to enjoy the many benefits of lawns and foliage, you’ll also likely quickly discover yard work needs to be done weekly during much of the year, taking anywhere from an hour to a whole day depending on the chore at hand and the size of your property.

You might shell out $1,000 to $5,000 on the equipment you’ll need, but assuming you stay with your do-it-yourself plan for perhaps five years or more, that investment will more than pay for itself compared with hiring a pro to tackle the work. (If you’ve never before used mowers, string trimmers, leaf blowers and such, get a friend who owns them to give you a lesson before you buy.)

Gas-powered equipment is the gold standard. You get virtually unlimited run time (as long as you keep your gas can full), with plenty of power. There are downsides though: Gasoline engines need regular service (technically every year), and they’re bulky and loud. They may require a strong arm to start, especially as they age.

Plug-in machines, on the other hand, start with the flip of a switch and need no maintenance, other than sharpening blades perhaps once or twice a decade. They weigh less than a gas tool and cost less too. The price for a handheld machine, such as a leaf blower or hedge-trimmer, comes in at just $50 to $70, compared with $130 to $250 for gas. The problem is that plug-ins lack the power of gas, plus you have to drag long extension cords around to use them. That’s why Chris Bolton, of the giant Michigan equipment retailer Weingartz, doesn’t recommend plug-in tools for anything larger than a postage-stamp-size lot.

Battery-powered machines have long been the also-rans of the outdoor power equipment world. Thanks to new battery technology, though, they’ve leapfrogged plug-ins and now offer a middle ground between burning gas and dragging cords in terms of power, weight, and convenience. The downsides: They are pricey, with a high-quality handheld coming in at $400 to $500 (perhaps twice the price of an equivalent gas machine), and the batteries typically only last 4 to 5 years. Replacements run about $80 apiece.

As long as you’re able-bodied enough to handle their weight and power, go with gas for your mower and snow thrower (if you need one), which are jobs that demand maximum power, says Bolton. If you prefer batteries for other tools, go with the same top-of-the-line name brand for them all. That way you’ll get plenty of power and the batteries will be interchangeable. Buy two so that when you’re using one, the other can be charging. Also spring for the quick-charger upgrade so you never have to wait on a battery and can get back to enjoying your new yard as fast as possible.

MONEY home prices

Backlash Against Foreign Home Buyers Takes Off

Foreigners are paying cash for U.S. real estate. Turns out some of that money is laundered. Fuse—Getty Images

It’s no secret that outsiders are collecting homes in cities around the country. Often the mystery is who they actually are, and where their money comes from.

Updated: August 1, 2014 11:00am

Foreign interest in U.S. real estate continues to grow, according to a report released this month from the National Association of Realtors. International sales rose from $68.2 billion to $92.2 billion over the past year, thanks to favorable exchange rates, affordable home prices, and rising affluence abroad.

In the wake of the housing bust, foreigners helped revive many U.S housing markets by scooping up properties when Americans were running scared. Despite the rise in prices since then, the attraction doesn’t seem to have soured. Experts estimate at least one-third of newly developed apartments in Manhattan go to international buyers. Other metropolitan areas including Los Angeles and Miami are also seeing demand, as well as even second-tier cities in places like Arizona and Texas.

Investors have been flocking from all over the map: China, Russia, The UAE, Switzerland. The industry catering to these faraway landlords—in charge of everything from managing payments to choosing lighting fixtures—has ballooned, since many of the apartments are rented out or sit empty.

Sales of ultra-high-end pads have received much of the media attention. Publications ranging from CBS News to Vanity Fair paid attention when two years ago a family member of Russian fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased the most expensive condo in Manhattan, for $88 million. But you’d be wrong to think it’s only billionaires that want a place on American soil. Buyers regularly hunt for homes and apartments at more mainstream prices (although, to be fair, the median price of a condo in Manhattan runs nearly $1.4 million). The National Association of Realtors reports that more than one-quarter of agents have worked with international clients. Chinese buyers spend $425,000 on average on U.S. homes, with about two-thirds of the deals being all-cash.

The Backlash

No surprise, the out-of-towners have earned a bad rap from many locals, who are losing bidding wars to the cash offers and feeling squeezed by the inflated prices. The outrage had grown strong enough in New York that in February writer Diane Francis, a Canadian who owns a place on Manhattan’s 57th Street, penned an opinion piece in the New York Post proclaiming that foreign real estate buyers in New York are not the enemy. She pointed out that she and her husband pay at least $25,000 a year in property and sales taxes but don’t cost the state’s schools, hospitals, or jails a dime.

Last month New York magazine fueled the rage with its cover story, “New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account,” suggesting that wealthy foreigners are using property to hide—and sometimes launder—their rubles and yuan. Another story a few days later from the Nation, both part of a joint project that included the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, piled on. A few tidbits from New York magazine:

As New York magazine noted, it’s often anonymous LLCs and bank accounts behind the purchases:

“There is nothing illegal—at least from the destination nation’s perspective—about sending money from an anonymous offshore bank account to purchase property in America. On the contrary, it’s an everyday occurrence.”

Sometimes not even building managers or the best neighborhood snoops know who the mysterious owners are, or where the money came from.

“With a little creative corporate structuring, the ownership of a New York property can be made as untraceable as a numbered bank account…. Those on the New York end of the transaction often don’t know—or don’t care to find out—the exact derivation of foreign money involved in these transactions.”

While not all of the foreign money coming in is laundered, some of it is, and public officials so far haven’t taken up the issue. From the Nation:

“U.S. authorities don’t put up many roadblocks for foreigners who want to launder money through American real estate. Escrow and real estate agents aren’t required to find out the true identities of property buyers—the real people behind the front men or corporate shells.”

Will enough outrage boil up that politicians feel obliged to make buying less attractive for foreigners? The capital-gains tax rules were recently modified in London, dimming future returns for foreign investors (and likely sending more buyers to this side of the Atlantic). Yet Adam Davidson, writing in the New York Times Magazine, points out one upside:

“I initially felt anger and disgust at the idea of absentee billionaires hoarding Manhattan real estate, making the city even more unaffordable while they live like princes in Moscow or Hong Kong or wherever. But then I did the math. Assuming that their money has to go somewhere, it’s not so bad that these billionaires choose to put a chunk of it here. Any city official in Dayton or, for that matter, Philadelphia would do anything to have such problems.”

The trend may slow on its own, particularly at the ultra high end. Developers looking to cash in on the world’s wealthy may oversaturate the market. There is, after all, a fixed number of people worldwide who want—and can afford—to plunk down upwards of $20 million for a pied-a-terre. The New York Daily News recently pointed out that sales in at least one building on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, so-called Billionaires’ Row, have slowed.

Then last week, the conversation about luxury real estate shifted from shady foreign buyers to an issue much closer to home for most of us: the question of whether non-ultra-rich residents of a new luxury development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side will have to enter through a separate door.

 

Correction: A representative of Dmitry Rybolovlev stated in an e-mail to MONEY that the Manhattan apartment was purchased by Rybolovlev’s daughter, not by Rybolovlev, as the article originally indicated.

TIME

Housing Prices Jump Though Top of Market Cools Off

The start to the story is the same as it has been for months: the most recent housing price data came in, and prices jumped.

However, the influence of extremely speculative markets (think: Miami and Vegas) is moderating, causing the national numbers to begin coming in at a slower pace.

For the year, this meant that the 20-City S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, which had clocked a yearly gain of 10.8% in April, slowed to high single digits, posting a yearly gain of 9.3% for the twelve months ending in May.

On a monthly basis, prices were up 0.1% for the index. For the year, every one of the twenty cities showed price increases.

However, gains for the cities at the top of the market slowed, which may presage softer numbers for the index as a whole in the coming months. Call it “hot hot” instead of “hot hot hot.” Las Vegas, which last month showed a yearly gain of 18.8%, decelerated to a yearly gain of 16.9%; Miami slid from 14.7% to 13.2%, and Phoenix slowed from a yearly rate of 9.8% to 8.2%.

The cities with the slightest gains were Cleveland (up 1.2% month-to-month, and 2.4% annually); Charlotte (up 1.4% month-to-month, and 4.7% annually), and New York (up 1.0% from April, and 4.8% annually).

One strong driver behind the market has been historically low interest rates. The rate for thirty-year “jumbo” loans — those with a loan balance of greater than $417,000 — fell this week to 4.21 percent, according to a weekly survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association. The MBA noted in a release that this was “the lowest level since May 2013.”

So continued low rates are supporting high prices. But what about the Federal Reserve? Wasn’t the Fed, which had been following a program of supporting low interest rates by buying debt, supposed to be slowly removing that support by buying less debt? Last year, when then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had announced that the Fed would wean off its latest round of bond purchasing, that so-called “Taper Talk” sent rates jumping.

Yet they’re low again because the economy made one strong realization: that “tapering” can be neutral. Yes, the Fed is buying less debt in an absolute sense — it’s buying a lower dollar volume worth of bonds. But the Federal government is also issuing less debt, since tax revenues are up. So indeed there’s less buying — but there’s less to buy. “It’s not really tightening if the proportion is the same,” noted Doug Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae, in a chat with Time last month.

Going forward, there’s a possibility that rates do spike as the taper ends completely, which is planned for later this year. However, if the history of the past couple of years is any guide, that impact will show in a slowing volume of home sales. Prices, though, seem on track to keep rising — albeit at a slowing pace. Maybe by the end of the year, we’ll be down to just one “hot.”

MONEY home prices

Case-Shiller Index Shows Home Price Growth Slowing

Home prices increased at their slowest pace since February 2013, according to the latest report on the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

The index, which compiles a 10- and 20-city composite of home prices, showed the 10-city composite posted price gains of 9.4% year-over-year, while the 20-city group showed gains of 9.3%. Both results were significantly lower than the 10.9% and 10.8% year-over-year increases the respective composites showed last month, and much less than the 9.9% gains analysts expected from the 20-city index.

All 20 cities posted some month-to-month price gains before seasonal adjustment, but 14 of 20 saw prices decline once seasonal factors were taken into account.

This is the second bit of bad news for home-sellers this month. On Monday, the National Association of Realtors reported that pending home sales dropped 1.1% in June, and were down 7.3% since June of 2013. Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, blamed tight credit, low inventory, and flat wages for the decline. However, Yun predicted sales would increase slightly in the second half of the year, partially because price appreciation has slowed.

“Housing has been turning in mixed economic numbers in the last few months,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Prices and sales of existing homes have shown improvement while construction and sales of new homes continue to lag. At the same time, the broader economy and especially employment are showing larger improvements and substantial gains.”

Of the 20 cities measured by the Case-Shiller index, Charlotte was the only area to see its annual growth rate improve. Las Vegas experienced some slowdown in price appreciation, but remained the city with the fastest price growth (16.9% YOY), followed by San Francisco (15.4% YOY). Washington had the lowest year-over-year growth at 5.8%.

MONEY buying a home

What a Zillow/Trulia Merger Might Mean For Consumers

House with SOLD sign
Martin Barraud—Getty Images

UPDATED—4:21 P.M.

It’s official. Zillow and Trulia, the two largest sites in the home listings game, are merging. Together they account for about 48% (not including local websites) of listings web traffic.

The deal, worth $3.5 billion in Zillow stock, has already been good for investors. Both companies’ stock is through the roof as Wall Street rewards Zillow for effectively eliminating its major competitor. Zillow’s press release states that both brands will be maintained, but Trulia CEO Pete Flint will begin reporting to Zillow’s chief executive, Spencer Rascoff. For all intents and purposes, Zillow-Trulia is now the only game in town, with a combined traffic that’s more than 3.5 times that of its nearest competitor, Realtor.com, according to comScore.

What does Zillow’s new, even-more-dominant market position mean for the consumer? Probably not a whole lot—at least initially.

The major concern consumers have long held with both Zillow and Trulia is the accuracy of the services’ listing information. The notorious(ly questionable) ‘Zestimate’ aside, the big two have been dinged for having out-of-date listings information. Because neither company has access to the large sample of multiple listing service (MLS) data that members of the National Association of Realtors are privy to, each relies on a hodgepodge of MLS listings, third-party services, and individual brokerages for their listing information.

The results can be hit or miss. It’s not uncommon to find a home on either site that’s already off the market. Realtor.com, run by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), has made its large MLS network—the site has access to virtually all of the country’s listing services—and more accurate listing information the cornerstone of recent marketing efforts.

A Zillow/Trulia merger isn’t likely to make their listing information any more reliable, and Zillow doesn’t mention increased accuracy as one of the “expected benefits” of the deal. Sissy Lappin, a Texas Realtor and founder of ListingDoor.com, thinks the Zillow/Trulia merger is a pure-and-simple market share grab, not a quest for more or better data. “They’re buying out the competition,” Lappin says.

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, both because each company has likely already made deals with all of the data providers willing to do business, and because the data only needs to be accurate enough to attract customers, not necessarily to sell them a particular home. Zillow makes most of its money by providing real estate agents with early leads, and even its own CEO has gone so far as to endorse the notion that “a lead on a stale listing is still a good lead.”

At the end of the day, consumers might find themselves the losers in the merger. 24/7 Wall Street points out that less competition for agents’ business could lead Zillow to charge them higher advertising fees, and those agents may pass on the costs to the buyers they represent. That said, how much agents actually pay for ad space on Trulia/Zillow is a hotly debated topic, and it’s still unclear whether agents—who, after all, provide Zillow with listings—or the company itself has the upper hand in the relationship.

Ultimately, the big question is whether the merger will bring long-simmering tensions between brokerage firms and Trulia/Zullow to a boil. Brokers like the advertising and leads online listings sites provide, but they also don’t like that agents can circumvent real estate franchises and go to the customer directly. There’s always the potential that Zillow becomes so large it can muscle out the middle man, and if enough of the industry fears this is coming true, they could pull their listings entirely.

Zillow denies they have any aspirations beyond creating a mutually beneficial partnership. “We’ve never wanted to become a real estate brokerage,” stated one company spokesman. The question is whether brokers believe that partnership is more beneficial than threatening. If they don’t, and decide to pull their listings—the so called “nuclear option”—it would have a huge impact on the market, for both consumers and everyone involved in the real estate business.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that Trulia and Zillow shared 90% of online listings traffic. According to Zillow, that number is 48%.

MONEY Housing Market

WATCH: What Zillow Buying Trulia Means for Real Estate

Zillow is set to acquire Trulia for $3.5 billion, but some people in the industry are nervous about the deal.

MONEY buying a home

Dear Zillow, Please Don’t Kill Trulia’s Best Feature

Trulia's heat maps are a huge competitive advantage. Courtesy of Trulia

Zillow is said to be interested in buying its competitor, Trulia.com. If so, let's hope they don't ruin what makes Trulia so great.

UPDATED—July 28, 4:25 P.M.

In case you haven’t heard, rumors are swirling that real estate giant Zillow.com plans to purchase real estate slightly-less-giant Trulia.com. Both companies’ stock have shot up on the news, and if the deal succeeds in going through, the new company (Trillow? Zulia?) will have almost 50% of the online listings market.

That’s good for shareholders. What about for consumers? When two businesses decide to tie the knot, you never know what aspects of your favorite company will make it through to the other side. And in the case of Trulia, it would be a tragedy if a ZillowTrulia mashup killed its best feature: Trulia’s amazing visualization of local data.

Sure, Zillow has local data too. And it’s not bad. There’s the average and median sales price, stats on specific neighborhoods (demographics, education, home prices over time), and even a nice little map showing the quality of schools in your chosen area. But Trulia takes all this to another level. Here’s a Zillow data visualization on schools:

ZillowExample
Courtesy of Zillow

Trulia has pretty much the same thing. But it also has these.

Heat maps of crime rates:

TruliaExample
Courtesy of Trulia

Commute times:

TruliaCommute
Courtesy of Trulia

Local listing price heat maps:

TriliaPrice
Courtesy of Trulia

There’s even a national home price heat map:

TruliaNational
Courtesy of Trulia

And that’s not even all of the data maps Trulia offers (I just assumed you might be tired of scrolling). The site also has similar visualizations for hazards (like flood zones), demographics, and amenities.

It’s hard to overstate how useful all of this is. When you’re looking for a house in a large area, getting the big picture is absolutely essential in making the right decision. How far am I from work if I live here? How much cheaper are home prices if I move a few blocks that way? Which areas are safe enough to live in, and what kind of stuff is there do in this neighborhood? These are all questions every buyer asks, and Trulia makes it very, very, easy to get the answers. Its amazing maps have long been cited as a competitive advantage.

So Zillow, if you do end up buying Trulia, you’re getting a pretty amazing product. Just please don’t screw it up.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that together Zillow and Trulia received 90% of online listings web traffic. According to Zillow, that number is actually 48% (not including local sites).

MONEY real estate

NYC Apartment Building Will Have Separate Door for Lower Rent Tenants. What’s Up With That?

Rich door and poor door
New Yorkers are calling it the "poor door." Sarina Finkelstein—Marcus Lindström/Bronxgebiet/Getty Images

A new luxury high-rise on the Upper West Side of Manhattan will include a separate entrance for tenants in "affordable" housing units.

New York City has approved plans for a new luxury high-rise on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that will include a separate entrance for tenants in “affordable” housing, reports the New York Post. Even the conservative Post manages to see the class angle, calling this a plan for a “poor door.” (The quotation marks are the Post‘s.)

This controversy has been roiling in New York for a while. The Daily Mail unearths a 2013 quotation in a real-estate trade paper from the developer of another project (not the one on the West Side) defending separate entrances. It’s one for the ages:

‘No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations,’ said David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers. ‘So now you have politicians talking about that, saying how horrible those back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.’

Let’s keep the rich and not-so-rich in separate boats. Nice. You can make arguments for what the developers are doing here—here’s one—but, wow, that’s not it.

If you don’t live in New York and you aren’t familiar with the crazy real estate market here, this story might need a little translation. Your questions answered:

If the developers don’t want to mix different tenants, why include “affordable” units at all?

Because they are getting subsidies—pretty valuable ones—to build them.

There is not enough of any kind of housing in NYC, but housing for people with low-to-middle incomes is especially scarce. The long-term answer to that is to build lots more housing, and there’s a case to be made that building in NYC should just be a lot easier than it is. The fear on the other side is that new construction will mostly go to the luxury end of the market.

One stop-gap has been to encourage developers to encourage builders to include various kinds of affordable units in their projects. There may be tax benefits passed on to buyers of condos in buildings with affordable units, for example. The Upper West Side project, developed by a group called Extell, got zoning rights to build more units, says the blog West Side Rag, and Extell can sell those rights to other nearby developers.

West Side Rag also says the developer argues that, since the affordable units are in a separate part of the building, it legally must have its own entrance. That could have been avoided had the affordable units been mixed throughout the building. But this particular high-rise offers coveted views, including of the Hudson River. Spreading the units around would presumably have meant giving up some prime spots to affordable units, cutting profits for the developer.

What’s “affordable”?

To qualify for these units, a tenant would need to earn less than 60% of the area’s median income, adjusted for family size, says West Side Rag. For a family of four, that’s about $52,ooo a year. That’s twice the Federal poverty line and above the median U.S. household income, though making ends meet in NYC on that much, with a couple of kids, isn’t easy. That family could rent a two bedroom under this program for about $1,100 a month. So yeah, New York’s version of affordable is different than in other places.

TIME Economy

Motor City Revival: Detroit’s Stunning Evolution in 19 GIFs

One year ago today Detroit became the largest city in US history to file for bankruptcy. See what changes took place in the city in the years leading up to the momentous declaration.

The Motor City, the former automotive capital of the nation, has seen a steady and precipitous decline in population and economic growth over the last half-century. The automotive industry’s move out of Detroit, poor political decision-making, and the collapse of the housing industry can all be viewed as causes for the city’s decline, among other reasons. On July 18, 2013, unable to pay its looming debts, Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to enter bankruptcy.

However, this momentous step did not happen overnight. Detroit was hit with a housing crisis in 2008, a sign of economic trouble that foreshadowed the city’s bankruptcy. A major outcome of that crisis is the city’s ongoing blight epidemic. Vast stretches of abandoned residential property lay on the outskirts of the once sprawling 139-square-mile city.

As Steven Gray wrote in 2009, “If there’s any city that symbolizes the most extreme effects of the nation’s economic crisis and, in particular, America’s housing crisis, it is Detroit.”

While many of the buildings and houses within the city have disappeared, evidence of a former era can be found in the more than 80,000 blighted houses remaining combined with an estimated 5,000 incidents of arson each year, according to the New York Times Magazine.

Despite all this, the Motor City could have a bright road ahead. There has been a recent surge in growth, spurred by a sense of opportunity in the ever-evolving city. New businesses are popping up and property is being rebuilt and re-purposed for urban farming, startups and public art.

Google Street view images, compiled here into GIFs, offer a unique look at how Detroit’s landscape has changed over the past four to six years leading up to the city’s bankruptcy a year ago.

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