Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The year in review: your 10 favorite Alfano Real Estate Group blogs from 2014.

It's hard to believe that 2015 is already here, but once again the calendar tells us its time to reflect on this past year and look forward to new opportunities in the next. All of us at Alfano Real Estate group are excited about helping you with your real estate needs in the new year, but not before taking a look at some of the topics, issues, and interesting trends we blogged about in 2014.

So here are your 10 most popular blog posts from 2014. Thanks again for your friendship and business, and  let's cheers to your health, wealth, and happiness going forward!  

Your 10 most popular Alfano Real Estate Group blogs from 2014:
(Just click on the image to read the whole blog.)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

10 Home design trends we'll see in 2015.

As our calendars flip closed on the last page of the year, it’s time to start thinking about the promise of 2015 and prognosticate what the next 365 might bring. Things are sure looking great in the real estate and mortgage world, but what changes might we see in new homes and remodeling in 2015? 

Here are 10 home design trends we'll see in 2015 and beyond:

Single-family homes will get smaller.
Continuing a trend that started since the real estate boom when builders and buyers followed the mantra “bigger is always better”, floor plans will continue to recede to more modest square footage. According to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders for 2015, 63% of new homes built will be between 2,000 and 2,399 square feet. 22% will still be sizable at 2,400 to 2,999 square feet but only 1% will be between 3,000 or more square feet, a desirable size in past markets. 13% of new homes will be between 1,600 – 1,999 square feet, which was considered too small in years past.

Living rooms are going away.
An interesting trend we’ll see in homes built in 2015 and beyond is the absence of living rooms. So instead of a little-used separate living room, floor plans will look to utilize that square footage in other ways. According to the NAHB survey, 52% of those living rooms will merge into other spaces like great rooms and family rooms attached to the kitchen, 30% will just go away so other rooms can be enlarged, and 13% will become parlors/retreats/home gyms/libraries, or music rooms. Only about 5% of blue prints will keep living rooms as we’ve seen them in the past.

More green features.
As consumers grow more conscious of their environmental footprint (and energy and water costs rise!), builders and contractors are tailoring home features to suit them. More new homes will see low-e windows, tankless water heaters, low flush toilets and low spray showerheads, cooling ceiling fans, and even rooftop solar panels for water heaters and electric systems.  

From a design standpoint, contractors, architects, and interior decorators will incorporate more natural elements into their projects in 2015, like using environmentally-friendly engineered hardwood for floors, cool vertical gardens, and water features indoors.

Smaller garages.
As square footage becomes a little more reasonable, more floor plans will include a two-car garage instead of the garages built for three or more cars we’ve seen in past years. 

Kitchen functionality.
When it comes to the kitchen, some design trends will continue while some will take a sharp detour. Built-in eating spaces like breakfast nooks will continue to be popular as will breakfast bars, center islands, large walk-in pantries, pull out drawers and dedicated recycling centers. While in 2013 and 2014, deep double-bowl kitchen sinks were in, 2015’s version will be just as large but single-bowl.

Don’t expect to see trash compactors, fireplaces, butcher’s pantries, or built-in wine coolers in next year’s kitchens.

Outdoor living.
One of the most refreshing trends in home’s in the past couple years will keep going strong in 2015: the affinity for outdoor living spaces. We’re not talking about closed in porches (which are out) or pools (out) but outdoor fireplaces, covered seating areas that rival any living room, and elaborate brick ovens and fully-functioning kitchens will be a huge draw for home buyers in 2015.

Master bedrooms will get special attention.
The sleeping area for the king and queen of the house will get a boost in 2015 and beyond. Builders will continue to put the master bedroom on the first floor of two story homes whenever possible. They’ll also enhance elaborate walk-in closets (realizing they are huge selling points) and integrate technology into the bedroom.

And if the master bedroom looks so good, the master bathroom has to keep up. Master bath showers will become even bigger and have more luxury features. Interestingly, there will be far less built-in tubs with a showerhead but more detached soaking tubs that look like something out of a spa.

Repurposed and heritage materials used in creative ways.
Personalization will be alive and well in 2015, as homeowners will be able to customize their design using local and heritage materials (like signs, family photos, antiques and heirlooms). There will also be an emphasis on mixing materials like repurposed wood, brick, and metals in fun and funky combinations. Look for a lot of wood or brick accent walls in 2015.

Changing colors.
Cabinets, tile patterns, and wall colors will go back to funky 1950s and art deco motifs, with a lot of charcoals and black and white in the mix. Gray will supplant tan as the default wall color for a lot of new homes and remodels. But don’t worry – there will be plenty of color on the walls in 2015, it just will come in the form of bold splashes of more natural colors on accent walls.

Trends that we’ll leave behind in 2014.

So as we flip the calendar well into 2015, what design features will we look at and say “That’s SO 2014!”? Builders and decorators are looking to move away from vaulted first floor ceilings, home offices, dedicated media rooms, sunrooms, mudrooms, formal dining rooms, skylights, and those huge garages in 2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Where do New York City taxi drivers go the bathroom? And everything else you want to know about taxicabs in the Big Apple.

I was in New York City recently, enjoying the bustle and energy that only the Big Apple around the holidays can offer. Everywhere I looked there were people – tourists straining their necks at the tall buildings, sharply dressed business people leaving work, and millions of other residents coming and going. Some walked, some took the subway, but a large number of them were flagging down taxis. Surveying the crazed traffic around Grand Central Station, it looked like there were yellow cabs everywhere, an army of worker bees in a busy hive.

I was lucky enough to find a free taxi right before it started to rain, and hopped in the cushy back seat before the driver sped off. But soon, we were standing still in rush hour gridlock. With nothing but time on our hands, I started chatting with the driver, a nice fella who was originally from Vietnam but had lived in New York and driven a cab for more than 30 years.

I asked him plenty of questions about the city and which tourist destinations were worth seeing before I got to the quizzical matter that was really on my mind: where the heck did taxi drivers go the bathroom? So on the rest of the stop-and-go, honking ride, he filled me in on life as a taxi driver in New York City.

All about those taxicabs.

-There are actually two classifications of taxis operating in New York City, differentiated by color.

-Medallion taxis are painted canary yellow and can operate and pick up passengers anywhere in the five Burroughs.

-Taxis that are apple green are called street hail livery vehicles and hit the streets starting August of 2013. They are allowed to pick up fares in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens (excluding LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport), and Staten Island.

-There are currently 13,605 taxicab medallion licenses (yellow cabs) in New York. They still operate the license and medallion system based on the act introduced by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia in 1937.

-In case you didn’t know, if a taxi’s rooftop light it out, it has a passenger already. If the center light is on, then it’s available. But when the outside lights on either side of the center light are on, it’s off duty.

-Private companies own and operate all taxicabs. They are all licensed and regulated by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC).

-Taxicabs must have a medallion to operate, which is displayed on the hood.

-There are a limited number of these medallions available, and they’re sold by the city at auctions or less frequently by owners who are retiring or moving on.

-It’s now estimated that to obtain a taxicab medallion and get the vehicle on the street, it costs over $1 million.

-There are different makes and models of vehicles approved for taxi use, but as of August 2013, the contract for new builds went to Nissan for their NV200.

-The new design for the NV200 includes room for four passengers, a transparent roof panel, an interior odor filter, antimicrobial fabric on the seats, mobile charging stations and USB ports.

-In compliance with national disability access laws, they are retrofitting or building new taxis with wheelchair access mechanisms.

-About 59% of the taxis on the streets of New York are hybrid taxis that partially operate on electric batteries to save fuel and reduce emissions, which is the highest number of any city in North America.

-All taxis were ordered to be painted bright yellow in 1967 so they would be more visible and easy to recognize. Before that, they were often green or red.

-That same year, a bullet proof partition went up between driver and backseat in every taxicab.

Inside the life of taxi drivers.

-In 2014, there were 51,298 men and women licensed to operate medallion taxicabs. That’s a ratio of almost 4 drivers to every vehicle because of course they work in shifts.

-On average, drivers cover 180 miles per shift, which lasts 10 or 12 hours.

-Drivers can privately own the taxis but because of the high cost for a medallion, the majority lease them from the company who owns them.

-In fact, it’s estimated that 29% of medallion taxicabs are owner operated.

-There are a certain number of medallions reserved for private owner/operators so big companies and fleets can’t monopolize the industry completely.

-The most up-to-date statistics show that drivers take home $158 on average per shift.

-Drivers usually stay on the job for a long time, with 42% of all taxi drivers possessing at least 11 years of experience.

-The demographics of taxi drivers are constantly changing. Back in the 1960’s, more than 10% of all drivers were women. These days, women operate less than 1% of taxis.

-These days, 91% of all New York City taxi drivers are immigrants, with Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan the most frequent countries of origin.

-New York City cabbies do go through a process of education and testing before they’re approved the hit the road. Prospective drivers have to take a 40-hour class to learn geography, etiquette and conversational English to become certified drivers.

-In the U.S., taxi drivers are prohibited from using their cell phones, even using hands-free. Although that rule is largely ignored, there is a $200 fine for cabbies caught on their cell phone.

-Drivers are legally required to pick up the first and/or or closest passenger they encounter. They are prohibited from refusing service to someone based on their appearance or race or any other factors. The TLC regularly engages in undercover operations to weed out drivers who engage in racial profiling, take unauthorized fares, or violate any other rules.

-They also are not allowed to refuse a passenger’s request to be taken to any destination in the five boroughs, neighboring Westchester or Nassau, or Newark Liberty International Airport.

It's all about the passengers (and their fares).

-Every year, almost 300 million passengers ride in New York City taxicabs.

-Although tourists make up a large portion of these taxi passengers, local New Yorkers still ride the most. Manhattan resident ride in taxis 100 times per year on average and 71% of all taxi fares bring Manhattan residents around their own city.

-The average charge for a ride of 5 miles is estimated at $14.10 and entails a 5-minute wait.

-When you sit in a taxi, fares automatically begin at $2.50 (or $3.00 between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 am, and $3.50 during the peak weekday hours of 4:00–8:00 p.m.).

-The meter rolls based on four factors: tariff rate (time of day), initial meter drop, distance traveled and waiting time.

-The fare goes up 50 cents for each one-fifth of a mile traveled, every 50 seconds stopped in traffic or waiting for a passenger, or if the taxi is stuck in traffic (travelling under 12 miles an hour).

-Standard taxicabs carry a maximum of four passengers, and one additional child under seven years old allowed to sit on an adult’s lap.

-Taxi drivers can automatically add $50 to the fare if a passenger vomits in the back seat!

-There are actually blogs and websites that document the stories of the cabbies and rank their complaints about customers.

Here are the top ten cabbie complaints:

#1 Passengers get intimate in the backseat while driving.
#2 Passengers don’t turn down the high volume on the TV’s that plays automatically in the back seats (imagine listening to the same thing over and over for 12 hours, every day).
#3 Backseat driving.
#4: Passengers trying to squeeze four people in the back seat (only three are allowed).
#5 Asking the driver to “step on it” or get to the destination faster.
#6 Skipping out on the fare!
#7 Being unclear about the destination or making changes en route.
#8 Not tipping or even worse, complaining about tipping and then not tipping.
#9 Trying to talk an off-duty taxi driver into taking a passenger.
#10 Drunk passengers who cause drama and make a mess!

So now we know so much more about cab drivers and taxis in New York City, but are we forgetting something? Of course – we never answered the question “Where do drivers go to the bathroom?”

In New York there are actually taxi relief stands – small areas with 7 parking spaces where cabbies can pull over, warm up, get some coffee and a bite to eat, and yes, most of them even have bathrooms. Each driver can take refuge there for up to an hour before moving on, and in fact, there are 62 taxi relief stands in New York City, 45 of which are in Manhattan.

And where did taxi drivers go to the bathroom before these taxi relief stands were established? Trust me; you don’t want to know.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

10 Strategies to deter thieves from robbing your home.

With a residential robbery occurring every 15 seconds in this country and the average loss at $1,725 per incident, it’s more important than ever to protect your home and family. We recently covered the data about home safety and what criminals are looking for, and now we're going to protect you. Here are 10 strategies to focus on, “hardening the target,” to make your home imminently safer.

1. Doors.
We’ll start with the easiest and most frequent access point for home thieves – your doors. In fact, the vast majority of burglars come right through the front or back doors. Usually all it takes is a well-placed kick to get through the door, because no matter how big or solid it is, it’s only as strong as the kick plate and locking mechanism. So install solid core or metal exterior doors with reinforced strike plates. Try to avoid doors with glass windows, or make sure they are made out of a shatterproof material.  Install a wide-angle peephole so you can see who’s knocking – or who is hiding. Sliding glass doors should have an extra locking mechanism so they can’t be easily pried open, and a dowel in the slider or metal track blocker.

2. Windows.
Windows are the second most common access point for burglars, but they usually don’t have to use force or break anything to get in. Homeowners leave windows open or unlocked all the time, especially in warmer weather months, and thieves can easily scoot in and then let themselves out with your valuable possessions. Most windows are built with latches, but they don’t really deter burglars. So install secondary locks on all windows – including those on the second floor. They have locking mechanisms that allow you to keep your window ajar for airflow, but not open wide enough for someone to get in. If you have horizontal sliders, you can use dowels and track blockers just like sliding glass doors.

3. Landscaping.
The main concern of a thief is to scout out your home in a very short time while remaining inconspicuous. You make it easy for them to accomplish this when you have overgrown bushes, trees, and landscaping that block the view from the street. So trim everything back and so their suspicious behavior will be exposed.

4. Lighting.
Set up exterior lighting that is bright and casts a wide angle. Put these on motion sensors but make sure they are higher than a person can reach (so they can’t be disabled). Put a few interior and exterior lights on timers to keep thieves guessing if anyone is home.

5. Alarm system.
You spend a lot of money on your home and even more on all of the nice thins inside, but remember that your family is your most priceless thing in your life. So it makes a lot of sense to invest in a quality alarm system to protect them. There are many different options for al budgets and needs – including monitoring services, video surveillance you can monitor remotely, and DIY systems. You might even get a discount on homeowners insurance by having an alarm and definitely, whether you have a system installed yet or now, put up alarm warning stickers on windows and doors and hang a few fake cameras. 

6. A dog.
Thieves are deterred by home security measures and technology, but they’re downright afraid of dogs! So keep Fido roaming the house during the night and in plain site of the front yard during the day. Even if you don’t have a dog, you can make a thief think you do! Put Beware of Dog stickers and yard signs out, a small dog door on a side door, and a dog bowl and few chew toys out near back or side doors you feel are vulnerable.

7. Social media.
What does social media have to do with your home? You’d be shocked how much a person could learn about you, your family, your routines, and your personal information on your Facebook, Instagram, or social media pages – including exactly where you live. Once they have your address and see you check in at your favorite restaurant, they know the coast is clear. Be very careful who you add as a friend, what information is public, and be discreet about your whereabouts. Don’t check in at home or take photos that reveal your home with the address numbers showing.

8. Vacation.
It’s not hard for a robber to know when you’re on vacation – and take advantage by breaking in. So try not to reveal exact travel plans on your social media sites, have the post office hold your mail, put your newspaper on hold, hire a local teen to come water your plants and leave a car in the driveway, alert neighbors, and keep lights and even the stereo or TV on timers to make the home appear lived in.

9. The mailbox.
A burglar doesn’t have to even get inside your home to rob you blind – they only need to get into your mailbox. Just by reaching in after the mailman, they can access sensitive financial documents and steal your identity. In fact, identity and financial theft is the fastest growing crime in America, and one in every eight people will be impacted any year. So keep a mailbox with a lock, big enough for the postman to slip through mail or very small packages but secure from “grabby” thieves passing by.

10. Neighbors and community.

No matter how much time goes by or how much technology we develop, I believe our best asset is still people. Get to know your neighbors and ask them to communicate if there’s anything suspicious or out of the ordinary at your home. Give them your cell and work numbers in case of emergency and alert them to your travel plans. You can also get involved with the Neighborhood Watch program and community development organizations, and if one doesn’t exist, found your own chapter!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Research shows attractive people do better in business except in two professions. The first is bank robbers…and the second one will shock you!

Are better looking people more successful at business? Research by Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, shows that good-looking people have many advantages in life, and it seems we can add success in business to that list. And you’ll probably be shocked how prevalent the difference is between earnings and workplace success between people who are deemed attractive versus their plain Jane counterparts.

In fact, numerous studies reveal that attractive people earn on average three to four percent more than their coworkers and peers who are less than attractive. That can add up to big money – about $230,000 over the lifetime of a working adult – just because a person was born with natural good looks. Even average looking people make on average $140,000 more than someone who is considered ugly. Data also suggests that attractive people make more money but get more raises, get hired more, and generally have more job opportunities. But they also are bigger earners, more productive, and sell and close more business when in sales.

While it’s certainly not fair that the pretty people get paid more (unless they’re models, actors, or spokespeople on The Price is Right), there’s no denying the correlation. But what does it actually mean?

But are good-looking people more successful because of their inherent traits and characteristics, or are people more successful just because they are easy on the eyes? Do their good looks breed naturally breed better confidence and force of personality that further perpetuate their perception as good looking?

Researchers at Rice University sought that answer when they engaged a study on beauty’s effect on success using clinical means. They looked at only facial appearances and their effect on success. The study concluded that people with birthmarks, scars, and other blemishes were more likely to be rated poorly by their interviewers. The interviewers tended to remember much less about these candidates – both in personal information and interview content - than candidates with unblemished and more attractive faces. Of course that resulted in lower interview ratings and less jobs awarded.

Other studies show that people with good looks are perceived as happier, have higher self esteem, more skilled, personable, capable, and more intelligent than cohorts with average looks. This is often described as the “Halo Effect,” where people automatically make positive assumptions based on someone’s good looks.

Another interesting study isolated perceptions by letting participants talk to a person on the phone, but then showed them two different photos of the person. When they thought they were talking to a more attractive person, they described them as being more warm, personable, and even smart.

Interestingly enough, good looks have been found to be even more important for a man in the workplace than they are for women. An attractive woman gets an 8% wage bonus if her looks are rated above average, or a 4% penalty for below average looks, or a 12% total swing. Men only receive a 4% wage bonus for good looks but get dinged a 13% penalty if they are homely, for a 17% swing.

Why is that? Like many things with human beings, the reasons we do things funnel down toward primal urges the longer we scrutinize them. Along with the Halo Effect, we tend to just be attracted to good looking people because they are perceived as healthier, stronger, and better perpetuators of the human race. We want to know them, be associated with them, and naturally insert them into our society’s leadership positions. Even today, we haven’t evolved out of our primal nature and that desire to be around people who are more attractive results in higher wages and a faster track to success at the office.

While this behavior may be socially reinforced, it is nature, not nurture, as the culprit in this case. New studies by the Society for Research on Child Development show that even children and adolescents who are rated as more attractive get higher grades and go on to college more.

Are there any exceptions to this rule that attractive people thrive in business? Why yes, there are – and this is where it gets fun. According to a study published in Applied Financial Economics, there are at least two professions where there is a negative correlation between attractiveness and success.

The first is armed robbery. That’s right, if you chose the vocation of robbing banks at gunpoint, your ugliness will be an asset, probably because looking mean, violent, and scary is beneficial in that line of work. Interestingly enough, this only applied to low-rent smash-and-grab robbers – white-collar criminals did far better when they were better looking.

The second line of work where bad looks help may shock you – real estate. Yes, research proves that real estate agents who have above average looks are less successful. This goes against everything we assume in the business, where suave male agents with business card photos like James Bond and elegant female realtors with the air of super models spread their likeness on door-to-door flyers, social media sites, and even bus stop benches. But the study by Applied Financial Economics found quite the opposite to be true.

The study downloaded thousands of photos of real estate agents at random from an online database. They then asked neutral observers to rate the person’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most attractive.

They then looked up the agents’ listing and sales statistics from their respective companies and averaged earnings for everyone who was a 10, a 9, etc. all the way to the 1’s. 

What they found shocked them – the realtors who were average or slightly below average looking far outperformed the better-looking agents. Further research concluded that the more beautiful agents took longer to sell houses, closed fewer deals, and brought less money into their companies. There are several theories to this, but the general conclusion is that the most attractive agents use their beauty as a crutch – not as an asset to complement their business.

Fascinating! Do you have any other thoughts or theories about this?