National Real Estate Stories

Downtown HartfordIt’s been a big day for real estate in the national news. The Wall Street Journal had three articles that caught my eye. And then Case-Shiller data was also announced this morning.

First was the front page piece titled Price Cuts Spur Home Sales. December existing home sales data was released on Monday. The market had expected another month-over-month decrease after November’s 9.4% drop in the number of transactions. However, the December report showed a 6.5% increase in sales over November. Amazingly, 45% of the sales in December 2008 are reported to be either foreclosures or sales in which the owner sells for less than they owe the bank, also known as a “short sale.”

The article goes on to discuss some of the main factors impacting the falling home prices. The three key factors seem to be local employment opportunities, inventory/supply (amount of new construction during the recent boom), and general confidence in the market. The Greater Hartford region is not specifically discussed, but it is clear that we are in better shape that many parts of the country. Employment remains our biggest threat – more job losses could trigger an increase in inventory and a simultaneous reduction in demand. Overzealous construction is a relatively small risk because most of the land in this region was either already developed or protected as green space before the recent housing boom. Everyone has had their confidence shaken (some on multiple occasions) over the past 18 months, but for the most part I don’t get the sense that we’ve collectively given up hope. People seem to be taking a business as usual approach with an extra helping of caution.

The next interesting article in today’s Journal was a quick blurb titled Many Say Goodbye to McMansions. Recent surveys of both builders and buyers suggest that people are planning to move to smaller homes. This result is not terribly surprising due to the current economic environment (can’t afford as large a home), the shift in attitude away from speculating on residential real estate (don’t believe home prices will rise quickly) and the recent energy shock (can’t believe how much it costs to heat the “great room”). This would suggest that newer, larger, more expensive homes, which are often built at the outskirts of communities, would be most at risk of losing value.

The last item in the Journal, PowerShares Goes Bargain Hunting discusses two new actively managed ETFs that will buy distressed mortgages. The funds will focus on bonds backed by pools of prime and Alt-A (better credit quality than subprime, but not quite as good as prime) mortgages. Experts quoted in the article expressed limited enthusiasm. On the plus side, mortgage backed securities have sold off dramatically over the past few years. No doubt that some bonds have been unfairly punished as investors exited these complex and uniquely individual issues en masse.

The argument against the new ETFs focuses on the timing of the opportunity. Are we really seeing the bottom of the housing market, so that resale values will be sufficient to pay off the mortgages in full? There are additional concerns about whether or not the new ETFs are the appropriate vehicle for investing in the mortgage backed securities markets. ETFs were originally devised as low-cost index investment vehicles that passively replicated equity indexes. The new ETFs are quite different in that they are actively managed and invest in the less transparent bond market. There are other ETFs already on the market that have similar structures, but they are all relatively new.

Finally, multiple sources are reporting the Case-Shiller Index number for November. The index of 20 large metropolitan regions shows prices falling about 18% on average from November 2007 to November 2008. The Hartford region is not included in the data, but our Northeastern surrogates of Boston and New York both experienced smaller price drops than the overall average.

This round of coverage illustrates that home prices continue to be a major point of interest for both the financial markets and the general citizenry. Data continues to show falling prices, and analysis suggests that prices could fall further. For Greater Hartford, the key metrics continue to be employment and confidence. As long as our job markets and wages remain reasonably stable, there is no reason to expect home prices in this area to go into a freefall.

The Spot Eatery – West Hartford

The Spot Eatery- West HartfordTucked into the southeast corner of West Hartford is The Spot, a hard-working burger joint that Amy and I recently visited. Each meal is one part American Classic (burger, dog and fries) and one part creative madness. The men behind the counter have devised a vast menu of flavorful combinations to transform the humble burger into works of art.

Our meal included a G-Moli (guacamole & bacon) Burger, a Buffalo Bacon Cheese Burger, an order of Latin Fries and Chocolate Milkshakes. The foundations of the burger were solid – large, handmade patties, cooked to order and served on appropriate size rolls (not too big so they dominate the taste or too small so that you don’t have anything to hold onto). I was most impressed by the care and attention paid to the toppings. For example, the bacon was outstanding – crunchy and flavorful. The guacamole had a nice flavor and was applied generously. The Buffalo flavoring and blue cheese dressing were in just the right proportions.

Even the fries are served in different flavors. Our Latin Fries were recommended by the house, and were delicious, but you could choose from about 10 options. One order was more than enough for us to share, filling a medium sized plate.

Prices are very reasonable with most burgers at $5.95 (or less), hot dogs topping out at $3.95 and most fries at $2.95 per order. All told we made it out at a hair over $20. The menu also has sandwiches, wraps and salads for lunch/dinner and traditional breakfast fare. They do a lot of take out business and also deliver.

As a final note, the burgers were served with slices of Cajon pickles. It was a nice touch, and Amy seemed to enjoy them. I don’t do dill pickles, so for me they were simply a final reminder of the chef’s creativity, which is the focus of The Spot.

The Spot Eatery
949 New Britain Ave
West Hartford, CT 06110
(860) 953-0033

Mon – Sat: 7:00am – 10:00pm
Sun: 7:00am – 7:00pm

The Owner with some future burgers

Hard at Work making tasty meals

Condo Association Boards at Their Dysfunctional Best

Dilbert by Scott AdamsUpon returning from vacation, Amy and I discovered that we had a letter from the Board of our Condo Association. I assumed it must be the materials for the annual meeting, but inside was a far greater treasure – an invitation to a Special Meeting of the Board called through homeowner petition! The last meeting I attended resulted in a two-part blog extravaganza (part 1, part 2), so the conflict implicit in the Special Meeting would surely be worth the trip.

It did not disappoint. The petitioning homeowners felt that the Condo Association Board was not being open and fair with everyone. Which is always an interesting topic to discuss in public. The general sense of distrust seems to be the result of homeowners feeling as though they are not allowed to attend Board meetings, not understanding what the Board is doing, and not feeling that the Board is responsive to their needs and wishes.

Despite having some valid concerns about transparency, the ringleader of the petitioning group had trouble leading a coherent discussion. Making matters worse, he is actually a member of the Board and has apparently not tried to make the petitioned changes internally. The only thing that saved the meeting from complete chaos was the voice of reason in the form of the management firm. The two representatives were able to command the floor and insist that the meeting proceed according to the association bylaws.

The final result was that the handful of homeowners with concerns got to say their peace, and the Board committed to consider the requests on the petition. Once again I was pleased to hear during the Treasury report that the Association is well positioned financially.

But the formal business took a back seat to the absurdity of the whole proceedings. Amy mentioned a few times that she felt like she was witnessing a live Dilbert comic strip unfold. Some of my favorite moments:

1. Remembering that we elected the petition ringleader to the Board at the previous annual meeting, realizing that he was the one that launched the petition, and then further realizing that after 9 months on the Board he still does not understand the rules by which meetings are run.

2. Learning that the minutes from the annual meeting (last April) are still not available. The current minute-taking process is to record the meeting on tape and then transcribe the tape. Apparently only one person is capable of transcribing the tape and she has had a difficult year and has not yet gotten to that particular meeting.

3. “My name is John Doe, and I live in 4F.” All speakers began their remarks with this identifying sentence. Although a sensible thing to do in theory, the ringleader insisted on starting off with it each one of the 1.32 million times he interjected or responded. And each time one of the other Board members sighed in exasperation.

4. Hearing the recorder used for the minutes start beeping on three separate occasions. Based on the reactions of the Board members, the beep meant that the tape was done and needed to be changed. Minutes of transcript were lost each time.

5. Learning that the Board voted to kill the committee that the petition ringleader chaired rather than remove him as the chair. Another Board member actually admitted that they did it because they did not like dealing with the ringleader. The closed Board meetings must be a barrel of fun!

6. “Satellite dishes are beautiful!” The association has a policy of not allowing personal property outside on common property. Thus no satellite TV. And an impassioned plea for the freedom of (TV) choice.

7. “It’s the email’s fault! It’s the computer’s fault! ” A quiet aside by one of the Board members about why some information was not available. At first I thought it was a serious comment, but then she followed up with, “We have to blame the computers for everything.” Whew.

8. And last, but not least, the Board members selectively using the Roberts Rules to silence audience members (homeowners) when they were speaking out of turn. This tactic is a go-to move for power players and is especially effective when used against good-intentioned people who want to follow the rules.

Despite the absurdity and strong emotions, it’s possible that some good will come from what I’m certain will be known for all time as the “Special Meeting of 2009.” There should be some added transparency to the Board’s activities. And the Board should seriously consider some of the other proposals. I’m not sure if they will or not, but we can all look forward to the next Annual Meeting to see how things have developed.

That wraps up this edition of dysfunctional Condo Association meetings. Now we’d like to hear some of your stories. Does this all sound familiar? What has been your favorite moment? Please send them in without the name of the complex or individuals to protect the guilty…

Los Adobes – West Hartford

Los Adobes - OutsideLost in the holiday shuffle was the opening of Los Adobes, a wonderful new Mexican restaurant at the corner of Park Road and Oakwood Avenue in West Hartford.

Los Adobes is an authentic Mexican eatery at a much lower price point than most of the other options in the area. The restaurant has relatively few tables and basic decor, much like other favorite stops along Park Road. Most of the menu is a la carte with some plated meals. The owner said that they have been open for about a month and a half, and are focusing on take-out meals in addition to sit-down dining. Although we’re not 100% sure, it does not appear that they have a liquor license.

Amy and I stopped in for lunch today and were quite impressed with our meal. We started with chips and guacamole. Opting for the “mild” guacamole, we were pleasantly surprised by the spicy kick and appreciated the traditional tortilla chips.

We then ordered a sampling of the Mexican classics to share, including a burrito, quesadilla and a taco (just one, it was lunchtime). All three were hand made with fresh ingredients, and generous portions for the price. Interestingly, none were served with sauce. We were given bottles of red and green sauce so that we could season to our preference. This option worked out very well for me because I was able to add just enough sauce to complement the flavors of the fresh ingredients without completely overwhelming them. The burrito and quesadilla were excellent as ordered, while the taco would have been better with a different meat option.

Los Adobe - Inside

Before wrapping up, I need to touch on the presentation. Our food was served on heavy plastic plates and our drinks in heavy plastic cups. The silverware was metal. Perhaps this is part of the strategy to keep prices low, or perhaps we caught them on a day when the dishwasher was down. Whatever the case, it did not take away from the quality of the food.

Los Adobes - LocationLos Adobes is an excellent new Mexican restaurant in West Hartford. It focuses on fresh and tasty food and complements it with very friendly service, all at a tremendous value. I insist that you make plans to stop at the intersection of Park and Oakwood. You should do it now. Whether you are looking for a quick bite on the go, or are looking to get out of the house for dinner, Los Adobes is a solid option.

Los Adobes Restaurant
Mexican Food
169 Park Road
West Hartford, CT
Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 9:00
Closed Mondays

Los Adobe - Sombrero