Walk Score Helps Consumers Walk Away From the Pump

Earlier this week, I reviewed the new beta version of Hoodeo and lamented that it wasn’t more pedestrian-friendly. More people are beginning to consider the price of gas when choosing the location of a new home and Hoodeo didn’t do much to find walkable communities for interested users. In pointing this out, I would be remiss to not mention a site that has a leg up in this regard: Walk Score.

Walk Score gives areas and addresses a score on a scale of zero to 100 based on distance to retail, entertainment, restaurants and caf├ęs. This is good news for people looking to trade their house and car keys for a condo and a pair of Mephistos and who want to find a neighborhood that will give them a reason to step out of the house without worrying about gas prices.

Walk Score’s system is limited, however, because it cannot account for tough hills, lack of infrastructure (safe sidewalks and crosswalks) and other obstacles which may make even a short distance a major obstacle. Most suburban areas will rank well below 50 points, which is considered unacceptable. This lack of walkability is precisely why suburbs may soon be less in demand in coming years (See our article Stepford No more: The Death of Suburbia). For now, Walk Score is only appropriate for people living close to downtowns or communities with a pedestrian-friendly town center.

Walk Score just released a list of the most walkable neighborhoods in my own area, Seattle, with an overall score of 72. To compare, the man at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue enjoys a score of 86 (assuming he can count that high). Meanwhile, the home of the King of Rock (Graceland, that is) scores a measly 32. That’s still much better than the King of Pop can do: Neverland Ranch scores a perfect 0. Maybe that’s why Jacko abdicated to Dubai, which will probably have self-cleaning conveyor-belt sidewalks before the boom there is over.

Wandering back on track—Walk Score is limited, but the developers know this, so with time it may provide a much more accurate and useful tool. Though a little too arbitrary for use on its own, it could help some homeowners narrow the field, and used in conjunction with sites such as Hoodeo, it may have users running, not walking, to the best place of all: Home Sweet-New Home.

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Hoodeo: Online Dating For Neighborhoods (Without The Social Stigma)

As the stigma attached to online dating diminishes and real estate sites continue to boom, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to play matchmaker for neighborhoods and the people who love them. Enter Hoodeo.

Hoodeo, now in beta form, was launched by the team behind eppraisal.com and works on the basis of one idea: It's better to find the right neighborhood first, and then find the right home within it. How does Hoodeo determine the right neighborhood for you without knowing you, your lifestyle, your family or your DNA? With a brief questionnaire, of course!

The Hoodeo compatibility chart places your top neighborhoods based on three criteriaThe Hoodeo Q & A is short and not terribly dry. My favorite question would have to be:

"Ugh… work… but you have to pay the bills somehow. How would you classify your profession?"

Cute, huh? Based on your answers, Hoodeo creates a list of your top 10 most compatible neighborhoods. The results are placed on a chart which is part Venn Diagram, part dartboard, part fruit pie based on your respective flavors: Lifestyle (Green Apple), Property (Peach) and Price (Blueberry). Dead center is a bull's-eye, but I found it impossible to get one of those no matter how I fudged with the questions. See? It's just like online dating.

If it all sounds too simple, that's because it is. Ultimately, the Q & A is too short to really get an accurate idea about your lifestyle or your needs. Furthermore, regarding Location Location Location! you can't narrow the fields based on your commute (method and time). I don't think it's too much to ask that they add this in later versions given how important it is becoming for some people to avoid long and costly travel times.

Hoodeo has its heart in the right place in trying to bring homebuyers one step closer to true love, but like many sites that make a science of compatibility, what sounds good in theory falls flat in practice. Hoodeo's system doesn't even pry enough information out of you to find that perfect place with perfect, unfeeling, mechanical precision, so the results are particularly disappointing. Until Hoodeo can improve on its system, I say follow your heart...or your real estate agent.

Real Estate Investing Game

I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have a game about real estate investing, but the few I’ve seen have been lackluster at best. Typically these games over-simplify things and in the end don’t really teach players anything about real estate investing. I finally came across a real estate investing game that is actually decent: The game is called Real Estate Empire. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining and someone who is new to real estate investment may even be able to learn a thing or two.

Some things the game has which set it apart from the others are that it takes into account things such as the economy, market cycles, credit, savings and professional skills. In the game, players can select from one of five different professions including real estate agent, contractor, interior designer, handyman and MBA. Each has a skill set that can help in the game as well as an accompanying savings and salary. To win the game you have to make more money than the competition--namely, the 4 remaining professionals.

As the game progresses you can buy, fix up and re-sell homes. While one of the downsides to this game is that it basically focuses on the fix and flip strategy of real estate investing, I think it does a pretty good job covering it. Players have to make sure they negotiate a good deal when they buy and decide which repairs to make and which ones will ultimately provide the highest return for them. When they sell the home they have to decide if they want to use an agent (to sell it faster and potentially for more money, but with higher costs), or go it alone. The game even takes into account peak selling seasons, so selling in winter is harder than selling in the spring or summer.

Another cool feature the game has is that it teaches credit and savings. In order to buy a home you first have to have a down payment, and you have to build your credit up along the way as well. At the end of each month, players have to decide which bills to pay and whether to use savings or credit to pay them. As the player pays their bills off, their credit gets better and their credit lines increase and subsequent mortgage rates available to them become better--just like in real life. This part of the game is pretty cool and this is the only game I’ve ever seen that incorporates this piece, which of course is vital to investors.

Rather than explain the entire game, though, I’ll provide you with a link to the place where you can download a trial version and play it for yourself. The trial version is just like the regular game, only a trial game will end after 60 minutes of play time. That is plenty of time to decide whether or not you like it, though, so I recommend checking it out if you like this sort of thing. Happy playing…



HotPads Helps Answer The Question: “Rent Or Buy?”

With a new mapping tool released by Hotpads.com, called the rent ratio heat map, users can now quickly and easily determine whether it makes more sense to rent or to buy in a certain area. The tool evaluates each area based on the rent ratio—or ratio of rental pricing to for-sale pricing—and assigns the appropriate heat map color.

While the tool is not perfect, it is a very cool idea that I’m sure will evolve with time. A couple of problems I noted were the comparison properties and the buying costs used to calculate the ratio. In their comparison, they use the number of bedrooms to determine the costs. The problem with this, of course, is that the apartments and other multi-family rentals examined are very different from the homes to which they are being compared. In areas like Manhattan, where single family homes are virtually non-existent, this comparison model makes sense. However, in suburban areas that have a high concentration of single-family homes, things are going to get a little off. Most people in the suburbs would prefer to live in a home rather than an apartment for various reasons. As a result the prices for rental homes tend to be considerably higher than apartments.

Another problem is with the cost they assign to the buy side of the equation. They simply take the cost of the home, but neglect to consider any additional expenses involved in home ownership. This of course includes property taxes, utilities (typically higher than in apartments), maintenance and so on. These costs vary greatly based on which state, and even city, you are in. For example, property taxes in Texas are more than double those in Washington.

This tool is a great idea, and as it evolves and becomes more accurate it will become an incredible resource for people to consult. It is most definitely worth checking out, and you can even use it as a starting block when evaluating neighborhoods, but don’t let it take the place of additional due diligence. This tool is not meant to be the final word on whether a person should actually choose to rent or buy; it is simply meant to be a starting point for them.

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Trump Golf Resort Delayed: Birdies Have The McDonald Bogeyed

Scotland may be the home of golf and bagpipes, but a protracted battle to stop Donald Trump’s $2 billion dollar golf resort has proved that the nation’s love of golf and old wind-bags is not unconditional. Trump argued yesterday for the resort in northeastern Scotland, on a stretch of shifting sand dunes on the coast 12 miles north of Aberdeen.

Trump has had quite a few snags in the last year. This latest bout of fiscal fisty-cuffs has been raging for some time, and as always Trump is reluctant to admit defeat. It may not just be bull-headed pride, though, as he claims that the project was inspired by his mother’s own Scottish heritage.

But tartan touting has not helped The McDonald in his fight, and resistance from environmentalists and residents—including a landowner who refuses to sell his family farm—has Trump’s kilt in a twist. The stretch is home to several species rare to the island, including cute, little otters and cutely-named kittiwakes (second only to titmice, in my book) and a golf course might spell doom for their populations. Badgers are also known to have their dens there—distant relatives of his, I imagine.

His rebuttals to concerns regarding the resort’s environmental impact are sub-par. From a USA Today article:

"People won't play a course if it is environmentally harmful," Trump said. "They don't like it, they don't feel good about it and they won't play it."

The United Nations Foundation may say otherwise given their address of the rising popularity of the sport worldwide and the concerns of environmentalists , but Trump has his own experts...and...

“Under cross-examination by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Trump drew snickers from the audience when he said he knew more about the environment than his consultants did. He acknowledged he had not read environmental reports that he commissioned.

"‘I would consider myself an environmentalist in the true sense of the word,’ Trump said.”

The panel, it would seem, rightly sees this as the steaming pile of haggis that it is. Though Trump remains optimistic, the best he can hope for is a scaled-down version...but he would never settle for anything but the best. Methinks the kittiwakes are safe for now.

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Deciding If You Should Buy A Franchise

When it comes to buying a franchise, there are a lot of resources available. Few of them, however, will truly prepare you for the decision of whether or not to purchase a franchise. I found this out the hard way when my wife and I invested in our first franchise.

Investing in a new or existing franchise is different than buying an existing business and thus requires a different focus of evaluation. Although buying a book about small business ownership may be helpful, there are many franchise-specific issues and considerations that an investor should address before deciding to take the leap into franchise ownership.

Rick Bisio, one of the most successful franchise consultants in the industry, has recently released a book titled "The Educated Franchisee." In it, he distills the information he’s learned not only from being a franchisee, but also from coaching hundreds (perhaps thousands) of individuals through the process of deciding whether a franchise is right for them. There are many resources related to small business, but few truly capture the unique challenges of the decision to buy a franchise.

Bisio clearly has a grasp of the one of the most important considerations when looking at a franchise opportunity: “buying a franchise is not the destination, it is the vehicle.” With this in mind, the book aims to address the question of whether a franchise is the proper vehicle for achieving an individual’s personal and financial goals. At the end of the book, the reader should be able to answer the three crucial questions any serious investor should consider:

1. Is a franchise right for me?
2. How do I find the right franchise opportunity?
3. What should I expect out of franchise ownership?

If you’ve been considering small business ownership and are open to the idea of a franchise, I recommend you pick up a copy of "The Educated Franchisee." $20 is a small price to pay to ensure you are making the right decision to invest your time, energy and hard-earned dollars in a franchise business.

It’s also a no-risk scenario. Bisio is offering a 100% refund if the book doesn’t “[help] you decide which franchise opportunity [is] best for you or [educate] you whether buying a franchise [is] the right move.”

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Google Mortgage MarketPlace: It’s Coming…

Zillow recently made headlines with their new mortgage marketplace, but Google is quietly testing a mortgage marketplace of their own in the U.K. Whether or not that means that Google will bring the marketplace to the U.S. is unclear, but in all likelihood if things go well in the U.K., we can probably expect to see it hear too.

After seeing the success that Zillow has had with their tool--over 28,000 loan requests in the first two months, according to Zillow-- I can’t see why Google wouldn’t also be successful. Google’s viewer base is more than 50 times larger than Zillow’s and they have a lot more money to throw into designing a great tool for users.

What does a Google Mortgage Marketplace mean? Well, it likely means even more competition among lenders, which means lower rates for borrowers. The main questions will probably revolve around service. Sure it’s great if someone quotes me a loan, that’s lower than another lender, but how can I know that they are going to actually close it? Is this lender someone who is going to pull the old promise the world trick only to hand over something completely different at the closing table?

These are questions that Google is going to have to answer if they hope to have success with their new tool. What I would love to see is the ability for users to rate lenders (it doesn't appear that Google's UK mortgage marketplace has this ability). Much like they have with their shopping site. That way users could compare not only quotes, but also past service records, which offers a much better solution for borrowers. Zillow offers a rating system as part of their mortgage marketplace, and if Google wants to take this thing to the next level they would be wise to add one too, maybe even with some additional features to what Zillow offers. In the end, Google’s name and size alone should allow them to control this marketplace, and I foresee them doing just that.

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Estately.com Expanding To Include Portland Properties

Estately.com, a real estate search website that uses referrals to connect consumers, real estate professionals and brokerage companies, is expanding outside Washington state by "adding 35,000+ Portland homes to our existing database of nearly 50,000 Western Washington homes," according to a recent blog post on Estately.com announcing the news.

"The site incorporates interactive mapping and displays details about the proximity of schools, parks, transit stops and restaurants to selected properties. Consumers can subscribe to get updates on price changes for properties and can save property notes," according to Inman News.

Estately.com users can search properties in specific neighborhoods and choose from agents in Estately's referral network by viewing competing bids anonymously. "The company has an agent-ranking algorithm that narrows the list of agents for a given area, and Estately staff research these agents and conduct interviews with some agents in developing its referral network," according to Inman News.

"We hope we make it easier for you, Portland, to search for a home in the hip neighborhoods--Hawthorne, Woodstock, Lloyd, Belmont, The Pearl District, and Sellwood--and the less hip ones. We also hope we make it easier to decide if a house is actually right for you," according to a blog post on Estately.com.

For more information on Portland real estate, see our previous article, Steady Growth in Portland Real Estate.

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